Knowing our past: truth telling in science
Science Meets Parliament (SMP) is an annual Australian event connecting STEM experts, policymakers and federal parliamentarians. In 2023 SMP took place in Canberra from 7-23 March and involved 528 delegates, 68 speakers and 64 meetings with scientists and parliamentarians. There was a strong online component, and the Royal Society of Tasmania was invited to take part in the session ‘Knowing our past: truth telling in science’.
As our President was scheduled to be working overseas in a remote area, I was asked to represent the Society in this panel discussion. The panel was chaired by Yawuru epidemiologist Dr Kalinda Griffiths, with other speakers Quandamooka mathematician Prof Chris Matthews and Mr Mike Flattley, CEO of the Royal Society of Victoria. The aim of the session was to share reflections on how to approach truth telling about the history of science’s relationship with Indigenous peoples, and why it’s important to know our past and be able to talk about it with clarity and honesty.
An official round-up was circulated each day of SMP, and this is how the panel discussion was summarised:
‘… then it was into a powerful discussion on truth-telling in science.
STA board member and Quandamooka mathematician Professor Chris Matthews said this work was deeply intertwined with “undoing the damage of the original doctrine of terra nullius – which did not see Aboriginal people as people”.
Session chair Dr Kalinda Griffiths reminded us to remember the vast load on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people – and urged non-Indigenous people to step into the space and carry the work with a deep awareness of that load.
Royal Society of Tasmania immediate past President Mary Koolhof reminded us a truth-telling was a process of humbling ourselves, deep listening and understanding – and of building trust. “That listening provides the platform for change.”
… Royal Society of Victoria CEO Mike Flattley: “What truth telling means to me is facing the past … that can evoke shame sorrow and anger, but settlers need to understand the past so we can atone for the wrongs and understand those legacies in the present.”’
There was considerable interest in the work of the RST in truth telling, and a great deal of respect for the process undertaken. One of the most important steps in this process was the delivery of the Apology to Tasmanian Aboriginal People in 2021: https://rst.org.au/apology-to-tasmanian-aboriginal-people-2021/. Newer members of the Society may be interested to know that one of the first steps in the Society’s journey towards truth telling took place in 2003 with the sponsoring of research into the work of the Royal Society of Tasmania in relation to Tasmanian Aboriginal people in the nineteenth century.
It was a privilege to represent the Society at this event and to develop deeper understanding of the process of truth telling and its importance.
More information about Science Meets Parliament can be found at
The Royal Society of Tasmania