Decolonising Science

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Fishnut
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Decolonising Science

Post by Fishnut » Tue Jul 13, 2021 11:33 am

I've seen a lot of papers over the last year or so discussing the benefits and practicalities of decolonising various fields of science, and I thought it would be useful to have somewhere to discuss this topic so I've made this thread.

I've just finished reading this paper (open access) on decolonising ecology which I highly recommend. It gives a good overview of why the history of colonialism is harmful to ecological research and provides suggestions on how to start fixing things:
- decolonise your mind: recognise that the Western way of viewing ecology and the environment is just one approach and there are other, equally valid approaches. Recognise the way that the reliance on scientific literature written in English distorts and limits our understanding.
- know your history - recognise the role of colonialism in shaping the ecology of colonised lands and how that is perpetuated through, for example, displacing people from their homes for "conservation" purposes. Acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which you are working. Identify and acknowledge the gaze (who you write for) and pose (the standpoint from which you write) in your work.
- decolonise access - improve access to scientific literature. As the paper states, "Habitual law breaking should not be a requirement of scientific practice." Make data more accessible and recognise and address the imbalance between Global North and South in terms of access to resources, museum collections, etc.
- decolonise expertise - broaden the definition of expertise. Recognise and acknowledge the expertise held in Indigenous communities. Recognise that this is not sufficient without also addressing power imbalances within and between institutions, and between those working in institutions and those outside of them.
- practice ethical ecology - build diverse and inclusive research groups. Change funding and reward structures so that collaborative and collective work is recognised.

The twitter thread by the lead author is a good overview for those who don't want to read the whole paper, and provides some additional resources, including this incredible Google Doc of resources on decolonising conservation. I haven't had a chance to go through them yet but there's some seriously interesting reading there.
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Re: Decolonising Science

Post by Woodchopper » Tue Jul 13, 2021 12:34 pm

Thanks for that, it contains many useful suggestions that could be followed by people working in other fields as well.

I think that the most important points are made near the end of page five. There they mention the institutional structures and incentives in which scientists operate, and radical change of those will probably be necessary if decolonization of research is to be successful.

For example, the paper suggests using non-English sources. That's a good idea, but from fields from outside ecology, I've heard of papers being criticized by Reviewer 2 for use of non-English sources. Similarly, giving people from the Global South more employment opportunities is a very good suggestion. However, that will be difficult so long as hiring committees and grant making bodies favour people who studied at a handful of elite Universities or have been published in the most highly ranked journals, all of which are based in Western Europe or North America.*

I guess I'm saying that colonialism was at its heart a power structure, and decolonizing science will need to change the power structures.

*Its enormously easier in ways that are not due to intelligence or hard work for some people to get into a PhD programme at Harvard or to get an article published in Nature.

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Re: Decolonising Science

Post by Fishnut » Tue Jul 13, 2021 12:44 pm

Very much so. Like so much of the problems facing the world today, while individuals can play their part the real change needs to come from reforming institutions and governance. Even if you have a research group that follows all the advice in the paper and more, it won't last very long if the metrics of their institution are unable to recognise the value of that work.
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Re: Decolonising Science

Post by Woodchopper » Tue Jul 13, 2021 12:58 pm

Fishnut wrote:
Tue Jul 13, 2021 12:44 pm
Very much so. Like so much of the problems facing the world today, while individuals can play their part the real change needs to come from reforming institutions and governance. Even if you have a research group that follows all the advice in the paper and more, it won't last very long if the metrics of their institution are unable to recognise the value of that work.
In case you haven't seen it, one relevant discussion is on the San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment (DORA) which aims to "eliminate the use of journal-based metrics, such as Journal Impact Factors, in funding, appointment, and promotion considerations" and instead "assess research on its own merits rather than on the basis of the journal in which the research is published".

Its argued that doing so would undermine one of the gatekeeping aspects of science which often has the consequence of excluding people who produce good research but find it difficult to get it published.

That said there are also counter arguments that qualitative assessments can also be highly biased and involve criteria which are not stated openly (ETA eg that the research produced by the person being assessed is in accord with the panel members' favourite theories). So at least getting articles published in the top ranked journals is a transparent threshold that people know that they need to cross.

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Re: Decolonising Science

Post by Fishnut » Tue Jul 13, 2021 1:02 pm

I know there are shifts to measure outputs other than publications as a way of trying to improve gender balance. Women end up doing far more of the pastoral aspects of academia - mentoring, outreach, participation of committees, etc which are vital to the functioning of the department but until recently weren't considered reasons to promote someone. Hopefully the increasing recognition that publication output is a very poor assessment of someone's value will have multiple beneficial consequences.
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Re: Decolonising Science

Post by Woodchopper » Tue Jul 13, 2021 1:56 pm

Fishnut wrote:
Tue Jul 13, 2021 1:02 pm
I know there are shifts to measure outputs other than publications as a way of trying to improve gender balance. Women end up doing far more of the pastoral aspects of academia - mentoring, outreach, participation of committees, etc which are vital to the functioning of the department but until recently weren't considered reasons to promote someone. Hopefully the increasing recognition that publication output is a very poor assessment of someone's value will have multiple beneficial consequences.
Yes, indeed, that is a big problem.

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Re: Decolonising Science

Post by turgidprose » Wed Jul 14, 2021 12:28 pm

Fishnut wrote:
Tue Jul 13, 2021 1:02 pm
I know there are shifts to measure outputs other than publications as a way of trying to improve gender balance. Women end up doing far more of the pastoral aspects of academia - mentoring, outreach, participation of committees, etc which are vital to the functioning of the department but until recently weren't considered reasons to promote someone. Hopefully the increasing recognition that publication output is a very poor assessment of someone's value will have multiple beneficial consequences.
Things like this: https://www.ukri.org/apply-for-funding/ ... ributions/

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Re: Decolonising Science

Post by philbo » Fri Jul 16, 2021 9:00 pm

Am I the only person who read the thread title and thought "does that mean pulling it out of ones backside?"?

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Re: Decolonising Science

Post by discovolante » Sat Jul 17, 2021 11:01 am

Just a reminder that the rules of engagement for Weighty Matters are:
In addition to following the general Forum Rules, this forum is for discussions about serious topics, for serious people. Avoid derailing. Stick to the subject. Avoid abuse. Be sensitive. Lengthy derails (more than 5 posts) will usually be split off. Shorter derails are subject to the whims of the mods. This forum is visible to and indexed by the outside world, so bear that in mind.
(my emphasis)

They can be found here: viewtopic.php?f=10&t=38 and are stickied at the top of the WM subforum.

As a general rule, please can posts try to engage with the subject matter of the OP? The occasional off the cuff comment is inevitable but if someone has clearly put time and effort into a post it'd be better if the replies could engage with its substance.

Thanks
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Re: Decolonising Science

Post by FairySmall » Thu Jul 22, 2021 7:57 pm

Thanks Fishnut for starting this thread. I'm actually working with colleagues on how our uni could support research that is anti-racist/decolonised so I'm very interested to see how this conversation develops. I used many of the discussions from the HE thread in the old place to hone my arguments in the office so fingers crossed I learn as much here.

I've found this guide really useful in shaping my thinking: https://libguides.umn.edu/antiracismlens. In response to the issue of metrics there's also this: https://brill.com/view/book/edcoll/9789 ... 000015.xml. I initially thought it was a joke paper because of the author name but once I got past that it raises some good points about rankings.

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Re: Decolonising Science

Post by Woodchopper » Fri Jul 23, 2021 6:59 pm


Bullying and harassment are rife in astronomy, poll suggests

[...]

Bullying and harassment are rife in astronomy and geophysics in Britain and perhaps other regions, according to the results of a survey conducted last year by the Royal Astronomical Society (RAS) in London. Among 661 researchers polled, more than half of whom were in the United Kingdom, 44% said they had experienced issues in the previous two years.

[...]

The survey finds that the problems are worse for women, for people with marginalized sexual orientations or gender identities (LGBT+ people), for disabled people and for Black people and those from other minority-ethnic groups. Half of the LGBT+ astronomers and geophysicists polled said they had been bullied in the previous year, and disabled, Black and minority-ethnic astronomers and geophysicists were 40% more likely to be bullied than were non-disabled and white researchers (see ‘Bullying and harassment in Astronomy’).

[...]

There is a growing awareness that bullying and harassment are a problem in the sciences, including astronomy and related fields. The results — detailed in a virtual talk on 22 July at the UK National Astronomy Meeting, hosted by the University of Bath — are consistent with earlier studies.

One previous survey by the UK think tank Space Skills Alliance, which is as yet unpublished, found that just 42% of Asian people and 39% of those of other marginalized ethnicities feel “always welcome” in the UK space sector, compared with 72% of white people. Racism has been invoked as a reason why the geosciences are among the least diverse disciplines1 , and geologist Chris Jackson at the University of Manchester says he is entirely unsurprised by the new findings.

[...]

A 2011–15 survey2 of astronomers and planetary scientists who were members of the American Physical Society revealed that women of colour experienced more hostile and negative workplace experiences, including harassment and assault, than did members of other groups.

[...]

Astronomer Priyamvada Natarajan at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, says that although the results of the RAS survey “are extremely sobering”, she is not surprised. “Toxic workplace behaviour seems commonplace, and most of us experience it, put up with it and try to work around it,” she says.
https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-021-02024-5

Decolonising science needs to start with scientists not being racist (or sexist, homophobic etc), and not bullying or harassing their colleagues.

Academics can often be profoundly unpleasant people.

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Re: Decolonising Science

Post by Fishnut » Sat Jul 24, 2021 12:10 pm

An actionable anti-racism plan for geoscience organizations by Hendratta Ali and colleagues, published as open access in Nature Communications.

I haven't read it yet but here's the abstract.
Geoscience organizations shape the discipline. They influence attitudes and expectations, set standards, and provide benefits to their members. Today, racism and discrimination limit the participation of, and promote hostility towards, members of minoritized groups within these critical geoscience spaces. This is particularly harmful for Black, Indigenous, and other people of color in geoscience and is further exacerbated along other axes of marginalization, including disability status and gender identity. Here we present a twenty-point anti-racism plan that organizations can implement to build an inclusive, equitable and accessible geoscience community. Enacting it will combat racism, discrimination, and the harassment of all members.
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Re: Decolonising Science

Post by Fishnut » Sun Jul 25, 2021 9:34 am

A group of academics from Auckland University (including one of my old lecturers :roll: ) published a letter in the New Zealand magazine The Listener this weekend. It is an unintentionally fantastic example of the sort of attitudes that those working to decolonise science are fighting against. The letter can be seen here, but I've reproduced the text below.
A recent report from a Government NCEA working group on proposed changes to the Māori school curriculum aims "to ensure parity for mātauranga Māori with the other bodies of knowledge credentialised by NCEA (particularly Western/Pākehā epistemologies)". It includes the following description as part of a new course: "It promotes discussion and analysis of the ways in which science has been used to support the dominance of Eurocentric views (among which, its use as a rationale for colonisation of Māori and the suppression of Māori knowledge); and the notion that science is a Western European invention and itself evidence of European dominance over Māori and other indigenous peoples."

This perpetuates disturbing misunderstandings of science emerging at all levels of education and in science funding. These encourage mistrust of science. Science is universal, not especially Western European. It has its origins in ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, ancient Greece and later India, with significant contributions in mathematics, astronomy and physics from mediaeval Islam, before developing in Europe and later in the US, with a strong presence across Asia.

Science itself does not colonise. It has been used to aid colonisation, as have literature and art. However, science also provides immense good, as well as greatly enhanced understanding of the world. Science is helping us battle worldwide crises such as Covid, global warming, carbon pollution, biodiversity loss and environmental degradation. Such science is informed by the united efforts of many nations and cultures. We increasingly depend on science, perhaps for our very survival. The future of our world, and our species, cannot afford mistrust of science.

Indigenous knowledge is critical for the preservation and perpetuation of culture and local practices, and plays key roles in management and policy. However, in the discovery of empirical, universal truths, it falls far short of what we can define as science itself.

To accept it as the equivalent of science is to patronise and fail indigenous populations better to ensure that everyone participates in the world's scientific enterprises. Indigenous knowledge may indeed help advance scientific knowledge in some ways, but it is not science.

Kendall Clements, Professor, School of Biological Sciences, University of Auckland
Garth Cooper, FRSNZ, Professor, School of Biological Sciences, University of Auckland
Michael Corbalis, FRSNZ, Emeritus Professor, School of Psychology, University of Auckland
Douglas Elliffe, Professor, School of Psychology, University of Auckland
Robert Nola, FRSNZ, Emeritus Professor, School of Psychology, University of Auckland
Elizabeth Rata, Professor, Critical Studies in Education, University of Auckland
John Werry, Emeritus Professor, Department of Psychological Medicine, University of Auckland
The link above is to a Twitter thread about the letter and the replies and quote tweets are well worth reading. My take is that it completely misunderstands what science is, which is quite concerning given who has written the the letter. Science is a method, a process, and the idea that indigenous people do not engage with the scientific process is laughable. The Polynesian people populated the South Pacific over a centuries-long period of deliberate exploration and expansion. If you think they were able to sail, against the wind and currents, to tiny islands in the largest ocean in the world without having engaged with the scientific process to develop an extensive body of knowledge about astronomy, oceanography, meteorology, animal behaviour and goodness knows what else then I really have to ask how you think they did it? The biggest run of luck in history?

The idea that indigenous knowledge is only useful for preserving and perpetuating culture and practices, and not worth keeping for that knowledge itself, is hugely insulting and displays a profound ignorance. This isn't to go all Avatar on people and say that indigenous people have some deep spiritual connection to the land that must be respected (though many do and it should), it's to acknowledge that people who have a long history on a land, who have been passed down hard-learned lessons from their ancestors about how to live on it successfully and who continually use and adapt those lessons, likely have a much greater understanding of its intricacies than someone who managed to do a few weeks of fieldwork one summer. Building on past knowledge, testing it, adapting it, and testing again pretty much is science. But the thinking expressed in the letter says that because it's not been published in academic journals it doesn't count and isn't valuable. f.ck that sh.t.
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Re: Decolonising Science

Post by Fishnut » Mon Jul 26, 2021 6:08 pm

While not directly about decolonising science, this paper (which I think should go a link behind the paywall) shows the huge impact that colonisation and Eurocentrism has had on ecology and many of their recommendations echo those of the authors of the paper that began this thread.

They produced this image to show the number of papers published for each country. The smaller the country, the fewer papers.

Image

Unsurprisingly, in general Western countries are over-represented and non-Western countries are under-represented. The tweet that highlighted me to this paper points out that a similar problem is seen in palaeontology and that this has significant impacts on the type of research that is considered publishable.

The paper also has this handy infographic of barriers researchers in non-Western countries face and potential solutions.
Image

One of the most obvious issues is language barriers, and I think it's one whose colonial origins are the easiest to grasp. The de facto language of science is English and the reason for this is because English people colonised countries all around the world and made English the language of officaldom. We were also very early in formalising science with institutions like the Royal Society and creating journals for research to be disseminated. In some respects having a common language is hugely beneficial to research, but it is not without problems,
expectations from reviewers and editors that all ecologists should or will communicate with the proficiency of a native English speaker is a form of prejudice that acts as a barrier to the publication of important work and the overall participation of ecologists in international groups (i.e., meetings,networks). Many researchers depend on professional translation and editing services, which are often costly, to be able to publish their papers and are unable to present their work at conferences because of limited English proficiency.
The authors suggest that journals support researchers whose first language is not English by providing "language editing" and for English-speaking researchers to expand their literature searches to non-English documents.
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Re: Decolonising Science

Post by Fishnut » Wed Jul 28, 2021 9:02 am

Fishnut wrote:
Sun Jul 25, 2021 9:34 am
A group of academics from Auckland University (including one of my old lecturers :roll: ) published a letter in the New Zealand magazine The Listener this weekend. It is an unintentionally fantastic example of the sort of attitudes that those working to decolonise science are fighting against...
The New Zealand Ecological Society has put out a statement saying that it "completely rejects the content" of the letter.
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Re: Decolonising Science

Post by Fishnut » Wed Jul 28, 2021 10:54 pm

Pushback to the letter keeps on coming. An open letter in opposition to it has a huge number of signatories, including two former lecturers of mine (whose names I remember. And I was there 15+ years ago so a lot of them have likely moved on). The University of Auckland and the Royal Society have both distanced themselves from the views expressed in it. There's also been some excellent pieces written about it, including this piece that deconstructs the colonialist attitudes embodied by the letter and this piece which provides a case study of how it is mātauranga Māori, not western science, that is working to protect New Zealand's coastal ecosystems.
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