Interview with Kirsten Maclean

Position: Senior Research Scientist 

Organisation: CSIRO 

One-liner: Bringing everyone together to sustainably manage our natural resources.

Project work with representatives of Bana Yarralji Bubu Inc. to capture stories about ‘returning to country’ for DVD of similar name (L-R) Joshua Darrah (Videographer and Editor), Kirsten MacLean 

It has been pleasing to see how science is helping the world to tackle the current pandemic. It provides learnings around our way forward in so many areas.

The Interview

Human Geographer is a great job title. What does it mean?

STEM Girl Power

I am a Senior Research Scientist who uses theories from Human Geography (and other disciplines) as a ‘lens’ through which to understand how place, diverse knowledges, values, aspirations and people create and influence social-ecological systems. I also use participatory methodologies (derived from similar concepts) to work with colleagues and research partners. My particular research focus is in the area of cultural and natural resource management – which also ties closely to the discipline of Human Geography.

It is usually said that “diversity drives innovation”. Do you believe that it is true? And why?

Lauren, Southport SHS, Gold Coast

I’d like to note that my answer is a personal response, drawing on my own experiences and not an official view of CSIRO. Personally, I agree with the statement that you have quoted, and this is reflected in the research work and practice that I have been lucky enough to do during my career so far. I have been fortunate to work with, and learn from, colleagues and research partners (who are also often the ‘end-users’ of the research outcomes) from diverse backgrounds (e.g. cultural, disciplinary) and sectors (e.g. research, Indigenous, industry, government, community) and who bring diverse knowledge, skills and aspirations to research partnerships. I have learnt, and continue to learn, that there is never one solution or single answer to any problem or challenge. Also, a problem or challenge may be understood in different ways by different people. Working together and embracing diversity and difference, although sometimes challenging, can result in innovation. To me it’s important to realise that innovation comes in many forms (not just the creation of a ‘product’) and smaller ‘break throughs’ can lead to bigger things.

Why do you think it is important to address the challenges of, and harness future opportunities for Reconciliation, to support Indigenous leaders and their research and innovation agendas, and to ‘Close the Gap’?

Lauren, Southport SHS, Gold Coast

My reply is a personal response, drawing on my own experiences. I believe that it’s incredibly important to address the challenges of, and certainly to harness the future opportunities for Reconciliation in all aspects of life, not just via research projects. In research – it’s my experience that Indigenous people in Australia and elsewhere seek empowering partnerships with researchers for innovative science to support livelihood strategies in natural and cultural resource management. To me, such partnerships represent research and innovation, and I believe that research outcomes can work towards ‘Closing the Gap’. I am personally keen to continue to use my skills to support Indigenous leaders, communities and research partners to respond to the challenges they encounter in their cultural and natural resource management. At a high level, such partnerships, projects and programs of work, progress Australia’s commitment to the Sustainable Development Goals. At the more local and personal level, I believe that each research partnership and project, including how we decide to work together, is an act of Reconciliation and innovation that is of benefit to all Australians.

Do you bring other groups into your partnerships with Indigenous leaders?

STEM Girl Power

The short answer to your question is ‘yes’. Many of the projects that I’ve been involved in and developed with others have included involvement of diverse individuals from different backgrounds and sectors. This ‘involvement’ may be in different forms. Sometimes, I’ve been involved in projects that have been co-developed with representatives from several Indigenous organisations, industry bodies and research organisations. Other times I’ve co-developed projects with representatives from a single Indigenous organisation. One outcome of many of these projects, is the development of networks between research partners and often with participants from different backgrounds. It is exciting to consider the reality that these networks and/or individual connections often lead to other things, beyond the life of a project.

What is the key to preserving the earth, its environments, and its inhabitants?

Grace, Kirwan SHS, Townsville

This question certainly covers a lot of the challenges that we face. I’ll start out by noting that my reply is a personal response, drawing on my own experiences and not an official view of CSIRO. The role of science is key in our understanding and tackling these major challenges.

It has been pleasing to see how science is helping the world to tackle the current pandemic. It provides learnings around our way forward in so many areas. A review of CSIRO’s Sustainability blog ECOS (ECOS – Science for sustainability ( uncovers a treasure trove of examples of how we can work to preserve the earth, its environments and its people, for example:

Six ways to link knowledge and action for sustainability – ECOS ( (just published on August 10)

Saving the world’s ecosystems one A at a time – ECOS ( (March 2021)

Regional Australia could hold the answers to living well in 2050 – ECOS ( (Feb 2021)

As an organisation of more than 5000 people, we have scientists tackling these problems from all angles. To discover more, a great place is to explore our website and our ECOS blog to discover more. Our resilient future issue last year is a great place to start:

What did you study in school and university to get to where you are now?

Grace, Moranbah SHS

At school and university, I studied a variety of humanities and science subjects and was always encouraged by my parents to focus on the subjects that I enjoyed the most. Although I did study geography at school, it only became a subject of interest to me when I started university. As an undergraduate, I commenced my studies with an arts degree and then moved to a double degree (arts/science) in second year. My arts majors were human geography and sociology; and my science major was ecology and bioresources. After a couple of years of travel (including work/volunteering in environmental conservation projects), I returned to university to do a Master’s in Philosophy (Geography) with the focus on environment and development. I completed my PhD (ANU Fenner School of Environment and Society), in Human Geography, worked in the Torres Strait for a year on fisheries management, then enjoyed completing a Post Doc at the University of Queensland, before commencing at the CSIRO.

How can Indigenous cultural fire management help manage current agriculture in Queensland?

STEM Girl Power

My reply is a personal response, drawing on my own experiences and not an official view of CSIRO. While I haven’t been involved in any personal research in this area, I can suggest that you seek out the websites of the many Indigenous cultural fire managers in Australia. A good place to start is to search for Firesticks.

What practices have worked best for you when bringing different groups together to manage our natural resources?

STEM Girl Power

Whenever possible, I work with my colleagues and research partners to formulate projects that address the questions they have with regards to cultural and natural resource management. As a Human Geographer who uses qualitative and participatory approaches, I work with colleagues to develop and use methodologies that focus on capturing the diverse experiences, knowledge, perspectives and interests of relevant individuals. Often, via this process, we are able to support our partners (and sometimes research participants) to develop networks and relationships with others who may also face similar challenges and opportunities.


Kirsten Maclean is a Senior Research Scientist (Human Geographer) working as part of the Sustainable Pathways program based in Brisbane, Australia. She uses co-research practice and participatory methodologies to investigate the role of diverse people, their knowledge and values in relation to their natural and cultural resource management and planning interests and aspirations in regional and rural Australia.   

Much of this work is developed in partnership with relevant government agencies, industry bodies and community and Indigenous organisations to ensure it responds to relevant national, state and place-based challenges.   

Research is often conducted with Indigenous co-research partners who actively care for their traditional country via diverse governance strategies. Such work also aims to address the challenges of, and harness future opportunities for Reconciliation, to support Indigenous leaders and their research and innovation agendas, and to ‘Close the Gap’ – all identified as areas of great importance for CSIRO.   

Past research has developed processes and methods to integrate diverse knowledge, values and interests for improved planning and management in the domains of agriculture (in relation to biosecurity; and the development of the Indigenous-led Bush Products sector, northern Australia), water, and biodiversity (including co-benefits of Indigenous cultural fire management). The outcomes of such research have been used by state and federal governments, peak industry organisations, non-government organisations and Indigenous and community organisations operating across these domains. 

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