Helen Thomson is a Research Development Manager in the Research and Innovation Office. Heidi Norman is a Senior Lecturer in the Social and Political Change Group and a member of the Cosmopolitan Civil Societies. In 2008, Helen began helping Heidi prepare an Australian Research Council (ARC) Discovery Indigenous Researchers Development grant application for her work into the NSW Aboriginal Land Rights Act 1983. The experience, which culminates this year, has proved life-changing.
I’ve been interested in the history of the Aboriginal Land Rights Act in NSW for many years so it almost feels like I was always going to write about it. It’s often said that Aboriginal people are researched to death but that’s actually not the case; there’s a real gap in terms of good quality history. Several years ago I began research and subsequently published work and photos on the NSW Aboriginal Rugby League Knockout. Prior to this work there hadn’t been any study or documentation, even at the very basic level, of why the knockout started, who started it or how it changed over time. That’s the same with land rights in NSW and I could see it was critical the story was told. I also wanted to think about it in more theoretical terms, about how the story of the formal recognition of land rights contributes to our understanding of the relationship between Aboriginal people and the state.
Helen was a phenomenal help; at one point I thought she should be on the research team. It took two years, not full-time obviously, to put the proposal together. Helen was very generous – I would speak to her maybe 10 times a day – on the mobile, landline, early in the morning, late at night, sending things through email. With ARC grants, the success rate is quite low – they’re highly competitive and there’s a limited pool of funds and a lot of applicants. It’s time consuming, quite intimidating and the bureaucratic process is very tricky. Helen was very attuned to tying up all the administrative loose ends.
I get quite anxious asking people for things, but Helen’s got a really calm way about her and was really good with that. The application extends to about 20 or 30 pages and you have to follow that with the CV of everyone involved, their recent publication records, their acquittal reports from other ARC grants. For this project, I worked really closely with Professors Heather Goodall and Gillian Cowlishaw as supervisors and with Professor Jock Collins as a mentor. Having the wisdom of academic elders is really important because it helps you keep everything in perspective.
Research is a very, very solitary activity – as the Chief Investigator on the project I spent two years, on and off, in the field doing research – but, I’ve had the best time of my academic life. This kind of research could only be possible through an ARC grant; part of the funding was for teaching buyout. Doing the field work, mostly conducting interviews as well as long stints in the State Library’s Mitchell Library, was enormous fun. I was struck by the generosity and enthusiasm of many people including members of Aboriginal Land Councils and former government ministers. I’ve collected a significant archive, from the many participants involved in my research, which I will deposit in the State Library for future researchers.
I’ve finished my research and already written a full draft of the book; it’s titled From Activism to Enterprise: A political history of the NSW Aboriginal Land Rights Act. At the moment I’m in the process of making final corrections. I’m really looking forward to it finally being over! I can’t imagine tackling another research project just yet; these things have a long incubation time. But, maybe, when it’s over, it’ll create a lot of space in my head and I’ll be ready to go again. Who knows?
RIO is one of those units many people don’t really know too much about, but we’re not that scary and we can be really helpful in getting researchers the funding they need. I work in the research grants team and part of my role is to assist researchers in identifying research grant funding schemes they can apply to. With something like the ARC Indigenous scheme we usually only have two to three applications each year. It’s a really nice scheme to work on because you can actually give those researchers a lot of time. The proposals are quite complex to put together and early career researchers, like Heidi, are really appreciative and benefit from that. I like that we can take a lot of the stress out of applying for grants so researchers can concentrate on what’s really important – doing the research.
I first met Heidi in a meeting about 10 years ago; she was speaking about her research into the Aboriginal knockout. It’s an annual rugby league event, which I hadn’t heard of at the time, but I learnt was the largest gathering of Indigenous people in the world. She was very passionate. In 2008, Heidi indicated she’d be interested in applying for an ARC Discovery Indigenous grant. This scheme is all about supporting and building research expertise in Indigenous researchers. When you apply, you need to have senior researchers who can mentor you and help build your research capabilities. I think the mentors Heidi chose were really appropriate in terms of their expertise and their research areas.
Heidi was great to work with – she was really receptive, really appreciative and very responsive when I made suggestions. In a sense, Heidi’s job was to write about the research project: what she wanted to investigate, what the outcomes would be. My work was more around making sure the proposal fit the actual scheme requirements.
Writing a grant proposal is very different to writing journal articles; it’s more like a CV and business plan. It has to be written in a very active, inspiring and exciting way. We often say to researchers, ‘assessors are really busy people, they’re researchers too and they often don’t start reading the proposals until maybe 10 o’clock at night’. Each element has to add up to something that looks to be a good investment to the funding body, something that’s really worthwhile, significant and timely.
Heidi often says to me, ‘Thank you, I couldn’t have done it without you’, but that’s my job. I really enjoy my work because I find out about some amazing research that solves problems and benefits society. I think one of the nicest things is the fact that we get to know the researchers. It builds a sense of community – you see each other around uni from time to time. Heidi and I were recently packing vegies together in the organic food co-op and she said the research grant has changed her life, which I think is amazing.