The shape of things to come: visions for the future of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health research

5 Mar 2014

This paper presents the results of a project that considered how research might best contribute to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health and wellbeing in the year 2030.

Executive summary

In late 2012, the Lowitja Institute embarked on a project using ‘futures thinking’ to consider how research might best contribute to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health and wellbeing in the year 2030. The project was motivated by a desire to ‘get ahead of the game’: to anticipate and prepare for the potential research demands of the future. In particular, there was a desire to ‘close the gap’ between the point at which important research needs are identified by policy makers or service providers, and when research findings can be delivered.

To think about the research needs of the future, it was necessary to first imagine what life might be like in 2030. What might Australia be like then, and the world? And what might the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people be?

Workshops were held around the country to consider issues and trends visible in the current landscape, and how these might play out to influence life in 2030. A range of possible scenarios emerged, clustering around two divergent futures: an inclusive, vibrant Australia in which Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures are valued and embraced as central to the Australian identity; or an Australia in which economic and/or spiritual poverty drive a rejection of diversity and increase the divide between rich and poor.

Participants then grappled with the question: If this (or that) scenario occurs, then what will be needed from research? By thinking about the range of possible scenarios for life in 2030, what capabilities are required to deliver the research that will be needed to address emerging issues and create a healthy future?

The inspirational and empowering answer—perhaps not surprisingly—was not simply a list of research topics. Instead, participants articulated a strong and widely shared desire for a profoundly different system of research. A vision emerged of a research system in which research and practice are closely interwoven and which would enable greater integration of health services, policy and research. Such a system would be responsive to changing research demands, but also to changing social, economic, technological and knowledge landscapes.

Specific research capabilities were also identified. An urgent necessity to actively address the social determinants of health was articulated in every workshop, along with a growing sense that the health and health research sectors may need to play a facilitating role, inviting other sectors—such as education, justice, local government—to collaborate and maximise the impact of their collective efforts to bring about change. A need for more evidence and evaluation around early childhood development programs (social as well as physical development) was seen as a priority for the immediate future.

The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health and health research sectors have played a pioneering role in the reform of research in Australia. The strength of vision articulated by participants in this project, and the desire to see that vision become a reality, suggests the sector will succeed in its drive toward a vision of a more effective research system.

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