VC's Update - returning the Elcho Island blood samples

15 November 2019

Hi everyone,

Last week I visited the United States and Canada on a whirlwind trip. After addressing the Presidents of the Canadian Universities, I made a quick stop in Bloomington to visit President Michael McRobbie AO, one of our alumni, as part of their Bicentennial celebrations and even got to see some snow there on Halloween. In New York and San Francisco we hosted some great alumni events, with Former PM the Hon Malcolm Turnbull coming to our event in San Francisco as a pleasant surprise.

Earlier this week, ANU closed our Siding Spring Observatory and the Kioloa Campus to ensure the safety of our staff and students because of Catastrophic Fire Danger. Many members of our community will be impacted by this emergency, and I encourage you to look out for each other, and seek support if you need it.  Let's hope such days are few in number over the coming summer.

This week marked a defining moment in our University's history, with the return of the Elcho Island blood samples. ANU currently holds more than 7,000 blood samples collected from Indigenous Australians in Northern and Western Australia from the 1960s to 1990s, which were used to study health following a typhoid outbreak. The National Centre for Indigenous Genomics (NCIG) has been working with four Indigenous communities to manage the samples and approximately 2,000 have currently been determined. 

Over months of talking and considering a range of options, a proposal was developed to allow NCIG to extract the DNA from the samples; perform DNA sequencing; and keep the genomic data in the NCIG data repository before returning the residual material repatriated to Country for burial.

Together, the University and the community of Galiwin'ku have humanised scientific samples and the way in which scientific research is conducted using these, and other samples like them. The engagement with the people of Galiwin'ku has taught us that the samples beginning their repatriation journey - indeed all of the samples in the NCIG collection - are not impersonal resources or commodities to be researched upon. They are representations of real people and as such, the samples must be treated with respect. The samples will be buried on Elcho Island next week, returning them to their home.

This week also saw the Indigenous Treaty Forum held on campus, bringing academics and more than 30 Indigenous communities from across Australia together. This forum plays an important part in a series of events hosted by ANU to discuss and celebrate Indigenous Australia. This forum built on discussions from last year's First Nations Governance Forum; asking the important question: what place should First Nations Peoples hold in the governance of the Australian nation-state?

While these questions being asked in many nations around the world, our history, culture and circumstances mean that the answers are unique. While we can, and should, learn much from our international neighbours, we must design our own path forward. As we saw at last year's forum, a wide variety of views exist within Australia's First Nations peoples on the best path towards greater self-determination, with individual proposals ranging from the conservative to the radical. The discussions were heartfelt and will continue us on a path towards meaningful recognition of Australia's First Peoples.

This week also saw the launch of two exciting ventures for our University; with the launch of The Australia Pacific Security College and the launch of the ANU Institute for Integrated Research on Disaster Risk Science.

The Australia Pacific Security College will be a central meeting point to discuss and coordinate Pacific security. It will be a whole-of-region collaborative effort, by enhancing the capacity of officials from Pacific agencies to deal with a broad range of security issues, including: climate, resource, human and traditional security challenges. These issues require collaborative efforts, and the College will provide a venue where we can work with our Pacific neighbours on research, teaching and learning initiatives to respond to regional challenges.

The ANU Institute for Integrated Research on Disaster Risk Science is in exciting new initiative, addressing the physical, economic and societal losses from natural disasters. In the context of the bush fire crisis emerging currently, we can see how better data and improved predictability will change the future of natural disaster response, benefitting our community and our region.

Finally, on 26 November, we will be implementing a new tradition at ANU - the Gareth Evans Oration. This lecture will be delivered annually, recognising the significant contribution our Chancellor, Gareth Evans, has made to foreign policy in his long career in public service. The inaugural speaker will be Ambassador Samantha Power, who was an instrumental player in the Obama Administration. Staff and students are invited to attend the lecture; or students are invited to participate in a Q&A session with Ambassador Power on 26 November.  Can I also recommend watching the movie of President Obama's last year in office - where Ambassador Power has a leading role.  This is a fitting tradition to recognise Gareth for what he has done for Australia, and it will be a privilege to host the lecture at the national university to mark his legacy.

Stay safe this weekend,