Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Science Is Not Just Whitefella Business

By Rowena Ball

Australia’s indigenous culture has a rich scientific heritage, yet indigenous people are under-represented in science-related careers today. Some simple steps can change this.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are under-represented in science, technology, mathematics and engineering (STEM) careers to an extent that could amount to a violation of human rights under Article 27 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights – the right of everyone to share in science and its benefits.

History shows that it is impossible to remain free of colonisation and exploitation unless a nation or community reaches out to the knowledge of the world, makes it their own and adds to it, and trains its own people. Yet in 2010 only 11% of indigenous enrolments in higher education were in STEM areas. This compares with 34% of non-indigenous enrolments. It follows that indigenous people are being systematically locked out of well-paid careers in science-related fields.

Australia has a rich indigenous scientific and engineering heritage, but it is largely ignored and neglected. This is surely a significant contributor to this lag in STEM literacy.

Notions that science is all whitefella business or a purely Western construct, and that Aboriginal people are just not good at maths and science, help to perpetuate this situation but it is easy to bust them as myths. An elementary analysis of the peer-reviewed scientific literature reveals that the scientific outputs of the US alone are created largely by non-white, foreign-born PhD students and postdocs. The “whitefella business” myth is busted already!

The “science is a Western construct” assertion does not stand up to scrutiny either. To begin with, all societies in the world practised astronomy, driven by the very practical imperatives of navigation, calendars and prediction of the tides. For instance, indigenous people had an excellent understanding of the motions of the moon and its connection to the two daily tides. By contrast, Galileo’s theory of the tides predicted only one tide per day.

Indigenous astronomy is a particularly rich body of knowledge of which we all should be proud nationally. Why not weave it into the school curriculum so that all Australian kids grow up with and respect and propagate this precious knowledge?

Much indigenous scientific and engineering heritage was wilfully destroyed or damaged by the British colonisers. For example, the Gunditjmara people of south-western Victoria ran a sophisticated aquaculture and eel farming involving extensive and ingenious civil engineering works to provide a system of canals, locks and weirs. They smoked the eels and traded them. However, the British occupiers in the mid-19th century drained the wetlands and put sheep on the country. Imagine how different things might have been if that expertise had been allowed to continue and modernise!

Now let us consider the development of STEM beyond the Western world.

  • The Chinese made many scientific and technological innovations hundreds of years in advance of the rest of the world. China now rivals the US in terms of peer-reviewed scientific outputs in English.
  • Between the 8th and 15th centuries many seminal advances were made by scientists in the Islamic caliphates. The Muslim rulers scoured the world for scientific texts, and translated them into Arabic. Science flourished because they looked outwards, embraced and synthesised knowledge from outside their empire, developed and added to it.
  • In the 1960s and 70s the South Korean government invested hugely in education with a campaign to “scientificise the whole population”. The young graduates took possession of science and technology and added their own to it. South Korea was transformed into a world power in only two generations.

So science is not a “Western construct”, or Islamic, or Christian, or white, or the product of any single culture. Science and the scientific method – the ongoing process of theory, observation and experiment, and refinement of theory – come from the synthesis of knowledge from many cultures. Myths busted again!

Yet indigenous students are under-represented in STEM courses at school and university. There is a leakage of indigenous talent to other areas and we must work hard to stem that leak. This can be achieved through a number of measures.

  • Indigenous scientific and engineering heritage needs to be researched, documented, taught and celebrated using new scientific methods developed by indigenous scientists.
  • Science and maths in some schools must be taught in language. English may be the language of science, but science and maths have to be understood in students’ home language if they are to own it.
  • Successful programs such as the indigenous youth science camps and summer schools must be expanded and increasingly be run by their alumni.
  • Indigenous scientists and engineers must be promoted as role models and mentors so that more indigenous students will see the relevance of STEM to their lives and be empowered to make these career choices.
  • Indigenous knowledges must join and enrich the universal pool of scientific knowledge, creating a broader dimension to science. There will be exciting opportunities to create new knowledge at the interface.

I have given several good reasons why science should belong to us mob, too, but the best reason is that science is just so cool!

Rowena Ball is an Associate Professor at The Australian National University’s College of Physical and Mathematical Sciences.