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‘Right-way’ science

We’re a science-based conservation organisation that’s committed to working with Aboriginal partners using best-practice principles and methods. 

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have lived in harmony with the land for tens of thousands of years, using sophisticated land management practices along with culture and lore. To heal and protect our natural ecology, we listen to Traditional Custodians, and are guided by their deep-held and continuous knowledge.

The Traditional Custodian right-way approach is based on listening, reciprocity, respect and learning. It brings together different knowledge systems for thinking, planning and acting for the benefit of people and Country.

We work together for our shared vision of healthy Country.

Birriliburu partnership: Ecologist Vanessa Westcott with Debbie ​Wongawol and Rita Cutter in the foreground. Photo Annette Ruzicka.

What is ‘right-way’ science?

Science Council definition of science:

Science is the pursuit and application of knowledge and understanding of the natural and social world following a systematic methodology based on evidence.

In Australia we stand on Aboriginal soil. We recognise the sovereignty, the connection and the knowledge of Traditional Custodians across the country and understand that our science is stronger if approached the right way.

‘Right-way science’ is the preferred term for the process of working together with our Aboriginal partners. This avoids language suggesting there are only two ways (‘two-way science’) or that there must always be two ways.

Right-way’ is a familiar term across many Indigenous communities applied in many different situations. For example, ‘right-way fire’ is an accepted term that relates to fire management that respects sacred sites, stories, cultural protocols and different types of country.

Our use of the term ‘right-way’ is not meant to imply there’s a wrong way, it’s meant to bring people together using language that’s well understood by our Aboriginal partners. Another term used is ‘cross-cultural’ science. The label doesn’t matter too much, it’s the principles we believe in and that all staff are required to understand and adopt in their work.

Bush Heritage Ecologist Allana Brown, with Olkoloa Rangers, planning work over a map. Photo Annette Ruzicka.

Projects based on a ‘right-way’ science can vary greatly due to different combinations of Indigenous knowledge systems, western scientific principles, technology, language, funding, time and experience of the parties involved.

Projects based on best-practice ‘right-way’ science:

  • are built on a foundation of trust and respect
  • answer questions all parties are interested in exploring
  • are developed together with Aboriginal Partners from the outset
  • include an appropriate mix of knowledge systems, methods and people
  • take care to protect the intellectual property of Aboriginal Partners
  • provide opportunities for all parties to analyse/interpret data
  • use open communication pathways (with limited jargon)
  • acknowledge all contributors.
Cups of tea are essential! They make sure everyone sits together to build trust and talk through different aspects of the project as it progresses.

Give and take

A good way to define ‘right-way’ science is through the Western Desert principle of ngaparrtji ngaparrtji (pronounced nap-art-jee nap-art-jee) meaning ‘give and take’.

For Martu people working with us in the Birriliburu partnership ngaparrtji ngaparrtji science is an exchange of knowledge and a chance to learn based on mutual respect, responsibility and connectedness. It’s a collaboration that recognises the value each group brings to a project when there’s a shared interest in the outcomes. 

A ‘right-way’ approach to science is not a single pathway:

  • Sometimes traditional knowledge should be acknowledged as the only and best knowledge system for the project (we don’t want to force other ways of thinking or doing).
  • Sometimes a science question is not a high priority for our Aboriginal Partners (who may be very busy). Permission should still be sought before research takes place and they'll likely still want to be kept up-to-date as projects progress.
  • Sometimes a suitable level of trust and understanding will take longer to be established between partners (it's never good to rush things).

The priority for our staff is to always genuinely make an effort to engage and leave the opportunity to work together open for all of our science-based projects.

“We want to work with the scientists. Learning from the scientists. And we can teach them - Martu names and looking for tracks.”
Lena Long – (Birriliburu Rangers)

Key questions 

  • What are the shared goals and what interest do Traditional Custodians have in participation and oversight of specific strategies and projects? The extended conversations that take place during conservation planning is an excellent chance to establish this and to then be able to respond appropriately and quickly to emerging science opportunities.
  • What are the knowledge needs that we share with our Aboriginal partners? When do they want to participate in the planning, implementation and/or monitoring of the project?
  • Are there activities that they wouldn't want us doing on a specific property? This needs to be assessed on a case-by-case basis as new technologies emerge and the context around who can enter, work on and tell stories about country is constantly changing.

These principles not only apply to research where our staff are directly involved but also where they play a role in facilitating the involvement of third-party academic institutions, working with our Aboriginal Partners.

“We like sharing. There are only a few of us [elders] left now. It’s a way of passing on knowledge and sharing knowledge – not just with white fellas but with young Martu. Good ones [white fella scientists] make an effort to learn up Martu way so we can link up stories with culture.”
Rita Cutter (Birriliburu Rangers)

Setting a camera trap to monitor Golden Shouldered Parrots on Olkola Country. Photo Annette Ruzicka.

‘Right-way’ science projects will not only have conservation benefits but a range of equally important but often less tangible social and cultural benefits such as:

  • empowerment of our Aboriginal Partners
  • a broadening of perspectives for all parties
  • development of new skills
  • highlighting the intimate links between people and nature
  • providing opportunities and resources for Indigenous people to pass on their own knowledge to younger generations
  • taking another small step towards reconciliation.

The social benefits associated with Indigenous Protected Areas have been measured and quantified in this report, which features two of our current partners – Wardekken and Birriliburu.

‘Right-way’ science projects sometimes take longer to complete but the benefits to all parties and the impact of the research will be much greater as a result.

We can demonstrate powerful positive outcomes from a ‘right-way’ science approach, and encourage others to adopt the practice too, by sharing tools and materials to help the concept be understood and adopted more broadly.

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