20 October 2014

Professor Aileen Moreton-Robinson with ARC CEO, Professor Aidan Byrne.

Image: Professor Aileen Moreton-Robinson. with ARC CEO, Professor Aidan Byrne.

 

Indigenous researcher, Professor Aileen Moreton-Robinson, has been a long-time strong advocate for the establishment of a dedicated collaborative Indigenous researchers’ network to provide vital support and build on existing research connections for Australian researchers and students who identify as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander.

This concept came to fruition last year with the opening of the National Indigenous Research and Knowledges Network (NIRAKN) at Queensland University of Technology (QUT), which is funded through the ARC Special Research Initiative for an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Researchers’ Network.

For Professor Moreton-Robinson NIRAKN, builds upon her previous work as Director of the Indigenous Studies Research Network at QUT, strengthened by a strong sense of community purpose within the higher education sector.

Professor Moreton-Robinson addressed ARC staff during NAIDOC Week celebrations this year, and spoke passionately about her role as Director of the $3.3 million network, funded over four years, and her involvement in its evolution.

While the network is geographically dispersed, it is administered from a central ‘hub’ at QUT (with Professor Moreton-Robinson at the helm, on her own traditional lands), with Indigenous researchers across the country linking to four virtual research ‘nodes’ across different disciplines.

Each node has leaders who are highly-regarded researchers in their disciplines such as Aboriginal historian Professor John Maynard from the University of Newcastle and lawyer and researcher Professor Larissa Behrendt from the University of Technology Sydney. Two node leaders were the first Pro Vice-Chancellors appointed within the higher education sector: Professor Bronwyn Fredericks—Pro Vice-Chancellor (Indigenous Engagement)—at Central Queensland University and Professor Steve Larkin—Pro Vice-Chancellor Indigenous Leadership—at Charles Darwin University.

There are currently 43 members in the network that represent 51 different Indigenous nations. True to the purpose of the network, the underlying theme is ‘Connections generating change’.

Professor Moreton-Robinson felt there was a clear need for a network to develop Indigenous research capacity because researchers were often suffering from physical and social isolation—focused mentoring and support was needed and this is where she concentrated her efforts.

Her inspiration to work for a national network comes from her own experiences as an emerging Indigenous researcher, and indeed similar feedback from the experiences of others.

“Being a PhD student is a very isolating experience. You often feel like you are not coping because of things like not understanding the processes, what you are supposed to be doing, how to plan your research—and we discuss how this sense of discomfort is a normal part of the process of one’s PhD journey. So part of what NIRAKN is trying to do is demystify the processes, so that people know what academic standards are and what to expect of ourselves.”

Professor Moreton-Robinson said that on top of the feeling of isolation, many indigenous researchers are the first in their families to pursue an academic career.

“The aim of the new network, funded through the ARC, is to establish a quality programme of capacity building, to support aspiring post-graduate, and early- to mid-career Indigenous researchers, in order to form a skilled research community.

“We want to connect Indigenous researchers across disciplines, nationally and internationally, and to develop an ongoing integrated programme of collaborative research.”

Professor Moreton-Robinson explained how the network was achieving this, outlining a core element, an organised programme of capacity building workshops. These workshops are equipping Indigenous researchers with important skills, knowledge, professional career development and advice across a wide range of topics from grant application processes through to ethics and publishing.

It is hoped that these important skills will help them to persevere with their research career.

“What we were becoming acutely aware of is that different universities approach research capacity building in different ways,” Professor Moreton-Robinson said.

“Some universities do not have a centralised research capacity building programme, while others have very structured ones. Our research capacity building workshops are about providing researchers with certain kinds of knowledge and skills that they may not be receiving from the sector.”

Another vital part of the network is the internal and external grants programme, where node members can apply directly for NIRAKN funding to support their specific research projects, or be supported in the pursuit of collaborative, cross-discipline and cross-institutional research projects through development of external grant applications, such as through the ARC’s Discovery Indigenous scheme or Linkage Programme.

So what advice does Professor Moreton-Robinson have for young researchers who may feel like giving up and not continuing on to complete their studies?

“Don’t give up—seek advice as there are people available to reach out to beyond your research supervisor. Most academics are more than willing to mentor and provide advice.

“Commencing a PhD is not just about undertaking a research project and producing a dissertation; it is also about understanding the emotional and psychological journey that you are on, as well as the discipline needed and the time management required to develop a research track record for a career as an academic.”

You can find out more about the great work of the network on the NIRAKN website