Australian Research Council Review – Potential for Culturally Safe Research?

What the ARC Review could mean for First Nations Australians

The Hon Jason Clare MP announced on 30 August 2022 an independent review of the Australian Research Council Act 2001 (the ARC Review).

1. A power point of research governance

The ships of governance – stewardship, leadership, and governorship – direct and steer the cultural tone of an organisation. Committees, such as the ARC Review Panel, are power points of governance. The leverage points of governance, such as committee membership, terms of reference, and decision-making and resource allocation rules, are where white privilege and institutional racism are normalised in Australian culture. The ARC Review Panel is a power point of research governance through which a culturally safe tone can be signalled for First Nations Australian researchers.

I research committees (PhDhealth policyclinician voice, and in health systems) because my grandmother, now passed, was stolen because of decisions made by invisible people on secret committees. I committed to a research career to study committees, First Nations peoples’ participation in them, and why and how our cultural voices should be included in the decision-making processes.

In this article, I ask: How can the ARC Review embed culturally safe research for First Nations Australians? I will refer to the first Australian definition of cultural safety (Eckermann et al. 1992, Binan Goonj: Bridging Cultures in Aboriginal Health):

‘Cultural safety, then, is the need to be recognised within the health care system and to be assured that the system reflects something of you – of your culture, your language, your customs, attitudes, beliefs and preferred ways of doing things’


2. The need to be recognised within the research system

The central philosophical rampart of cultural safety is that First Nations Australians determine if the service provided is culturally safe. In this context, does the ARC research service include, respect and empower my cultural identity? One way to answer this question is to see if there are any First Nations peoples on the ARC Review Panel.

The ARC Review Panel comprises three white professors (two medical and one bioethicist), no doubt amazingly accomplished people in their fields (and gender inclusivity shown with two females and one male) – appointed by a white Australian male. I am also a fair skin Ngiyampaa man and continue to suffer the stigmatism that other mob write about. I believe in MLK’s “content of character” ethic, and that skin colour is an insufficient indicator of values, or morals, or ethics, or of culture. Going beyond skin colour means I search for other signals of character.

Publications on the “character of science” demonstrate that science has a racism problem. The American National Institute of Health wants to end structural racism in the biomedical health research enterprise. In Australia, Former Race Discrimination Commissioner, Professor Tim Soutphommasane, found that of 2500 senior leaders in business, politics, government and higher education, almost 95 per cent had an Anglo-Celtic or European background. The ARC Review Panel has no First Nations voice, potentially continuing the structural exclusion of our cultural voices.

Cultural diversity could be included in the ARC Act if one or more governors of the Review were from one or more of the hundreds of First Nations in Australia.

The Australian Research Council Act 2001 does not contain any reference to culture and this signals an Australian norm to provide care “regardless” or race, culture, or colour. Obviously, that is untrue and so advocates for cultural safety expound that services (even research services) should be provided regardful of cultural diversity. In terms of my opening question (does the ARC research service include, respect and empower my cultural identity?), that’s a “no” to legislative empowerment of First Nations Peoples’ cultural identities in research.


3. Preferred way of doing things

Another philosophical rampart of cultural safety is power imbalances, especially in colonial societies built on a foundation of white racial superiority. How could First Nations Australians’ preferred way of doing things be embedded in the ARC Review?

My research shows that inclusion and participation in committees can be rigorously and scientifically measured, monitored, and evaluated. From clinician voice in healthcare, to Indigenous participation in national health committees, to designing culturally safe and secure health care. This research demonstrates that decision-making committees exclude First Nations Peoples who are corralled into advisory roles. Our cultural ways of doing things are for advice only, and, as the Institutional Racism Matrix shows, our cultural values are not included in decisions about funding, with those decisions dominated by non-First Nations people.

Sure, the ARC proves cultural awareness through its Reconciliation Action Planscommitment to Aboriginal Researchers, and Discovery Indigenous Projects. Have these changed the deep culture of the organisation? There’s no research available on that point – instead there’s the carefully controlled public relations and marketing spin sending the right signals about equity, diversity and inclusiveness. And Reconciliation Action Plans are not independently reviewed, monitored, and accounted for in what has – and has not – been achieved in terms of cultural change.

The ARC Review Panel could consider how cultural responsivess is embedded in the ARC’s enabling legislation, and not merely as an attached policy of equity, diversity, and inclusiveness.

Taking a culturally safe position means explicitly designing a system that is responsive to cultural diversity. Furthermore, to go beyond cultural awareness, the ARC Review Panel should consider independent research to measure the cultural safety of the organisation. Then I might start to culturally trust that it reflects something of the cultural values I’d like to see in research with First Nations Australians.


4. Reflects something of you

Another philosophical rampart of cultural safety is reflexivity, and that’s about critically reflecting on the use of power through research to subjugate and oppress First Nations Peoples, and after a truth telling and reconciliation process, then developing a research system that empowers us. Empowerment is more than statistics of research funding.

The ARC has been criticised for its funding of Indigenous research. This article by Jenny Sinclair, points to a trend of dominance of non-First Nations settlers doing First Nations research while First Nations researchers receive a minor share of funding. This looks like a cultural norm in a white privilege society comfortable with decision-making processes that favour non-First Nations expertise development about First Nations Peoples.

I said “looks like” because it’s more than an issue of black and white. Let me make it clear that non-First Nations allies and champions have supported my research career more than have First Nations People. Allyship in research is the dedication of non-First Nations researchers to be inclusive of First Nations peoples. For example, because it’s impossible to know the ARC Review Panel members, a search of their public research track records reveals an absence of research experience with First Nations Peoples.

The ARC Review should consider how cultural respect for First Nations Peoples could be embedded in the ARC organisation and indicated in the track records of researchers.

There are incredible non-First Nations researchers who go into bat for First Nations Australians, and this is clear in the increasing number of research publications that demonstrate culturally safe research governance. I can see that they respect my cultural preferences for research with First Nations Peoples. Thus, for my opening question (Does the ARC research service include, respect and empower my cultural identity?), it’s a “no” to the ARC Review Panel advocating for my cultural preferences.


5. Culturally safe decision making “assurance”

The definition of cultural safety, above, contains the phrase “to be assured” and I interpret this in terms of decision-making power (not advisory or consultation). I assess committees to seek assurance that First Nations Peoples are routinely included in them. Some reflective questions about ARC committees (internal and public) for the ARC Review Panel:

  1. Does the composition of committees include First Nations Peoples?
  2. Have all committee members undertaken training in cultural safety, competence, or awareness?
  3. Do the Terms of Reference for every ARC committee reflect an equity clause for First Nations Australians?
  4. Is First Nations Australians’ equity considered as a standing agenda item?
  5. When decisions are made, is there a question: does this decision continue the structural oppression of First Nations Australians?
  6. How is committee performance monitored, reported, and accounted for in decision-making for First Nations Australian researcher equity?


These questions, and more, come from the many guidelines about cultural respectcultural safety, and cultural competency. As it stands, the ARC Review does not assure me that First Nations Peoples’ beliefs will be written into the Act.

The ARC Review Panel could consider how cultural equity is embedded, measured, monitored and evaluated in the future operations of the ARC.

First Nations Peoples believe, for example, that biomedical dominance of healthcare needs to be balanced with First Nations world views that see health as the social, cultural, and emotional wellbeing of the whole community. The ARC research system needs to reflect our world views.

As a mid-career researcher, why would I want a say in a body that controls $900 million dollars in research funding? Or, why am I a part-time researcher/lecturer with no prospects of permanent, full-time income security in a university system in love with casualised labour of First Nations People (read this Sydney Uni article). Some deep reflection is required by the ARC Review Panel to structure-in permanent and long-term employment of First Nations Researchers.


6. Balance professorial elitism with community voices

My voice is excluded from ARC processes because I am not a member of the professorial elites. This academic elitism is expressed in a recent article where there’s an objection raised about the involvement of non-academics and the right of politicians (our elected community representatives) to veto research. Professorial elitism in this article shows that their professorial priorities are blind to the significance of cultural safety in research and the voices of First Nations Peoples.

Another aspect of professorial elitism is the lack of respect for engaging with First Nations communities, who have long expressed the need for community involvement in decision-making processes and in research. That’s about decolonising the ARC because the citizen/community voice is at the heart of the nature of democracy, of public service, and of the human right for citizen participation in decision-making processes that affect them.

The ARC Review Panel needs to consider embedding a First Nations Peoples community reference group as a stipulation of the Australian Research Council Act.

I also welcome balanced oversight of research funding by the new Indigenous Members of Parliament. I say “balanced oversight” because of the cultural diversity of First Nations peoples that means tribal affiliation, skin colour discrimination, and family favouritism are cultural factors in First Nations communities.

The Australian Research Council Act 2001 needs to be reviewed in the light of considerations for an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice to Parliament:

  1. Has the Hon Jason Clare MP read the Uluru Voice from the Heart?
  2. Does he agree with an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice to Parliament?
  3. Has he consulted with the Indigenous members of parliament?
  4. Why not appoint First Nations Australians to the ARC Review Panel?

Thus, for my opening question (Does the ARC research service include, respect and empower my cultural identity?), it’s a “no” to respecting my desire for stronger community participation in, and oversight of, research organisations. That goes to my “attitude” that communities should hold researchers to account. Proponents of cultural safety focus on attitude change to reform, for example, health research systems.


7. Medical and Technology Hegemony

An attitude that social science researchers face is the culture of decision-making committees in health research where you should be a clinician – preferably a medical doctor, or a nurse, or at least an allied health professional. The drive towards medical, biomedical, and technological “advancement” has seen the Australian higher education sector stripped of its humanities and arts soul, as expressed in this article. In the driver’s seat of the ARC Review Panel are medical and technology leaders – for a research agency that supports research ‘outside of clinical and other medical research’.

I’m a Ngiyampaa man from New South Wales, have a 20 year career in public administration, health promotion, and research – all in First Nations health. I’ve sat on a lot of committees. All advisory committees, mind you, because as I learned early on, First Nations Peoples were not included in committees that had decision-making and resource allocation power. I tried to find answers to why in my ARC Discovery Indigenous Research Fellow (2012-2014) where I studied Aboriginal voice integration and diffusion in policy-making processes. The long and short of that study was – “nobody cares about committees, Mark! Give me something relevant for the clinical setting”.

The ARC Review Panel needs to consider how social justice and human rights for the participation of First Nations Peoples in decision-making processes is pro-actively demonstrated by Australian scholars.

As per the cultural safety definition, above, and “reflects something of you”, I think the social justice and human rights perspective is championed more by humanities, public health, and social science researchers. The hundreds of cultural safety research articles I collect every year, rarely is there one from medical and technological journals. However, that may be more about the journal publication format, because medical societies do champion reconciliation, the right of First Nations Australians, and cultural safety.


8. Unethical Terms of Reference

In its current form, the Review of the Australian Research Council Act 2001 would not pass research ethics standards. It’s not meant to, it’s a political process, and when has ethics come into the politics of higher education research? Research ethics is a rigorous process where a plan is laid out to justify the research and the potential risks involved for participants.

The research proposal to hand is the Terms of Reference. It notes many reasons the review is necessary – such as ARC taking on responsibilities not within its current legislative remit, becoming a delivery partner for government agencies, and that the enabling legislation is outdated. It notes the objectives, the process, and consultation for the review.

However, First Nations Australians want more than consultation, which is perceived as tokenism rather than genuine and meaningful engagement. Ethical guidelines for research with First Nations Peoples stipulate our genuine involvement in every aspect of research and not just to be ‘consulted’ during the conduct of the research.

The ARC Review Panel should develop a research review protocol and have it assessed by relevant Australian ethics committees.

There are plenty of government resources about genuine and meaningful engagement with First Nations Peoples by the AIHW, the NHMRC, and the AIATSIS. The ARC needs to read-up on these. Why should I contribute to the ARC consultation when it does not provide a Participant Information Statement outlining what it intends to do with my Indigenous intellectual property?


9. Conclusion – Constructing a culturally safe ARC research system

There is evidence in Australia, and worldwide, that reforms to research systems are needed regarding cultural safety. The ARC Review Panel governance does not reflect the evidence base for embedding cultural safety into the review of the Australian Research Council Act 2001. In this personal article (disclaimer-not the opinions of my employers), here are my ideas about how the ARC Review can embed culturally safe research for First Nations Australians:

  1. The Australian Research Council Constitution Act 2001 should be structured to embed cultural safety into every point and pathway of the ARCs governance and operations.
  2. Cultural diversity could be included in the ARC Act if one or more governors of the Review were from one or more of the hundreds of First Nations in Australia.
  3. The ARC Review Panel could consider how cultural responsivess is embedded in the ARCs enabling legislation, and not merely as an attached policy of equity, diversity, and inclusiveness.
  4. The ARC Review should consider how cultural respect for First Nations Peoples could be embedded in the ARC organisation and indicated in the track records of researchers.
  5. The ARC Review Panel could consider how cultural equity is embedded, measured, monitored and evaluated in the future operations of the ARC.
  6. The ARC Review Panel needs to consider embedding a First Nations Peoples community reference group as a stipulation of the Australian Research Council Act.
  7. The ARC Review Panel needs to consider how social justice and human rights for the participation of First Nations Peoples in decision making processes is proactively demonstrated by Australian scholars.
  8. The ARC Review Panel should develop a research review protocol and have it assessed by relevant Australian ethics committees.

These eight points go some way for me to think about how cultural safety could be enabled in and through the review of the Australian Research Council Act 2001. A culturally safe research system would not diminish, demean or disempower First Nations Australian researchers. I have highlighted themes of cultural: diversity, responsiveness, respect and equity; as well as themes of community engagement, social justice and human rights, and ethical review. If these are engaged with in a genuine way, then every research activity may accrue into a system where First Nations communities trust researchers and the benefits of research.

By drlockediting

I apply my academic and cultural skills to editing your important writing. With a Doctor of Philosophy (Public Health), Master of Public Health, Honours in Nutrition, and a Bachelor of Science, I bring strong educational skills to my editing. As a First Nations Australia (Ngiyampaa), with First Fleet heritage (The Lucas Clan) and growing up in country NSW, I bring a unique cultural lens to my practice. My editing will empower your cultural safety - respecting your cultural identity, heritage, and values - so that your cultural voice shines through in your writing. If you need editing of your creative writing, academic writing, or report writing, then contact Cultural Safety Editing Service.

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