Steps to End “Colonial Science” Slowly Take Shape
Steps to End “Colonial Science” Slowly Take Shape

Steps to End “Colonial Science” Slowly Take Shape

Scientists from countries with fewer resources are pushing collaborators from higher-income countries to shed biases and behaviors that perpetuate social stratification in the research community.

Ashley Yeager
Jan 1, 2021

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Long poop trails were marine biologist Asha de Vos’s first clue that blue whales didn’t always behave the way scientists expected them to. It was 2003, and she had just finished her undergraduate degree and was working on a whale research vessel that was visiting Sri Lankan waters. She’d been told time and again by her undergraduate professors at the University of St. Andrews that blue whales feed only in the cold waters off Antarctica—and that, when in the warmer waters of the Indian Ocean to breed and give birth to their babies, they don’t eat or excrete  anything. Spotting the whales’ enormous fecal plumes in the warmer waters showed that, contrary to that assumption, the animals were chowing down while they were in the calving grounds, de Vos tells The Scientist

Excited by the find and eager to kickstart her research on the whales’ unexpected behavior, she reached out to whale experts around the world. The responses she received weren’t exactly what she’d hoped for. Researchers wrote back saying something to the effect of, “Get us a research permit, and we’ll bring our teams out to research these blue whales,” she recalls. Not only did the other researchers want to come to her country and take over the field observations she had started, but they’d also asked her to do the logistical legwork to support their work. 

Marine biologist Asha de Vos discovered a novel behavior among blue whales (Balaenoptera musculus) off the coast of her home country of Sri Lanka in 2003, but was disappointed to find that most potential collaborators from other countries wanted to take charge of the project.
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De Vos was upset. She wanted to recruit collaborators who would support her leading the project, “not . . . to be treated like I am labor in my own country,” she recalls. Writing in an opinion article for Scientific American last summer, she argued that the situation is a perfect example of “colonial science,” where researchers from the global North—typically higher-income countries—come to lower-income countries of the global South, do the research they want to do, take the data they need to advance their careers, and then “leave without any investment in human capacity or infrastructure.”

The scenario is not uncommon, notes Larry Crowder, a marine ecologist at Stanford University. There are countless examples in marine conservation, he says, as well as botany, archeology and human evolution, infectious disease, and many others. This injustice doesn’t just harm the researchers sidelined in their own countries, it also hinders science as an enterprise, Crowder says. Only slowly have scientists from the global North come to recognize that, without the input of investigators from countries in which they’re carrying out research, little will get done. This has become abundantly clear during the COVID-19 pandemic, which prevented many researchers from visiting their field research sites in foreign countries, and brought multiple projects to a standstill. 

The events of the past year have left researchers thinking deeply about what they want scientific collaboration to look like in the future, says Emily Darling, a coral reef ecologist with the Wildlife Conservation Society. “I think we all know that for so many reasons, we can’t go back to normal or the way things were. Or if we do, it’s a very unfair and unjust . . . society.”

Recognizing the context of colonial science

Often, researchers aren’t explicitly aware of overarching colonialist attitudes in science. Crowder first became conscious of the issue in 1997, when he started a marine conservation course at Duke University’s Marine Lab in Beaufort, North Carolina. That summer, there were 50 students on the course—49 from across the US and one from Barbados. Crowder recalls “waxing philosophical about global marine conservation” when the student from Barbados, Lorna Inniss, stood up and proceeded to tell the class how conservation efforts worked very differently in her country, with distinct governance from that in the US and a focus on community-oriented approaches, rather than efforts managed by a few government agencies. “That was a pretty stark realization that, if marine conservation is interdisciplinary and international, . . . we need to start with that [global perspective] as a given and recognize that the former colonialists, including the US, aren’t going to be very effective working in countries around the world as compared to people from those countries,” Crowder says. 

After that class, Crowder launched the Global Fellows in Marine Conservation program, which in 1998 brought five international fellows to work alongside 40 US students at the Marine Lab, where they’d learn about marine ecology and the biology of marine animals. In subsequent years, the balance of international and US students shifted further. For conservationist Joanna Alfaro Shigueto, who participated in the program in 2001, those lessons were invaluable to understanding some of the observations she’d made in the field in her home country of Peru. She says she realized then that to promote conservation efforts to save turtles and marine mammals in the coastal waters of her country, she’d need to provide the same training in basic biology that’d she’d received at Duke to the marine authorities, the equivalent of the US Coast Guard, so that they understood why they would need to enforce the conservation measures. Having those kinds of discussions with other fellows in the program also helped the US students broaden “their perspectives of how conservation can be done,” Crowder says. And it makes it absolutely clear that good conservation research “definitely doesn’t involve, in my view, sending scientists from the EU or the US to Nicaragua to solve problems.” 

Kew Gardens in London has partnered with Sebsebe Demissew of Addis Ababa University in Ethiopia to study the biology of the Ethiopian native enset (Ensete ventricosum).
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Crowder explains that the habit of sending researchers from wealthier countries to work in the global South often goes hand-in-hand with “parachute science,” where researchers drop in, do their research, and leave. And this attitude can be compounded by the traditionally Eurocentric focus of science, which has resulted in an academic community that treats Western experts as if they are the “arbiter of the only true knowledge, the most important knowledge,” Dina Gilio-Whitaker, an expert in traditional ecological knowledge at California State University San Marcos, explained at the October 2020 ScienceWriters conference. That mindset, Gilio-Whitaker noted, fails to recognize that there are other knowledge systems that have supported the survival and sustainability of communities for many thousands of years. 

Crowder agrees, explaining that it’s essential for researchers working on international projects to incorporate existing local knowledge and to work with local scientists and institutions to help build a self-sustaining research enterprise in the country where the work’s being done. 

Taking steps to decolonize science

For Brazilian plant scientist Alexandre Antonelli, head of science at Kew Gardens in London, botany offers a particularly stark picture of Western disregard for local knowledge. “For hundreds of years, rich countries in the north have exploited natural resources and human knowledge in the south,” he explains in a June 2020 piece for The Conversation. “Colonial botanists would embark on dangerous expeditions in the name of science but were ultimately tasked with finding economically profitable plants.” The problem isn’t only a historical one, he continues: botanists continue to downplay the “depth and complexity” of indigenous knowledge. 

To begin to address that issue, Antonelli and colleagues partnered with Sebsebe Demissew, a plant systematics and biodiversity expert at Addis Ababa University in Ethiopia and executive director of the nearby Gullele Botanic Garden, to learn more about the Ethiopian native enset (Ensete ventricosum). A flowering plant in the banana family, E. ventricosum has been used as a food source in Ethiopia for tens of thousands of years and has acquired more than 200 names. Yet very little is known about its biology, especially its extreme resilience to drought. Better understanding the plant’s biology could lead to its cultivation in nearby areas, offering food security for the region, Antonelli explains. Demissew will provide local knowledge about where and how the plant grows, while investigating the biology of the plant’s ability to survive in regions with limited water. Kew also has projects in Madagascar and Colombia. “These are just few examples of how knowledge about plant diversity can be used for the benefit of all people, in particular those who’ve suffered most from systematic discrimination and long-term exploitation,” Antonelli writes. 

Over the summer, in response to the killing of George Floyd and to the Black Lives Matter movement, staff at Kew also began reflecting on the organization’s “past and current practices in the context of the origins of science to identify what can be done in the short term and long term to improve any kind of inequalities that may come from [those] past origins,” Sonia Dhana, a science officer at the gardens, tells The Scientist. One aim has been to make Kew’s plant collections more accessible to a broader range of people onsite and online, especially for communities in locations where historical specimens may have originally been collected. Staff members have also begun adding to the documentation associated with specimens in the collection to include more about their heritage. In addition, Kew is developing a code of conduct for assigning new taxonomic names to species that recommends incorporating local knowledge—by including the name of the location a species was first found, for example, or the species’ name in local language, Dhana says. 

Similar efforts are underway in other fields, such as archeology and human evolution studies—two other fields that have seen their fair share of discrimination and exploitation. The Scientist previously reported on the efforts of the San people of southern Africa to reverse this trend. Their code of research conduct, published in 2017, calls for researchers to request the San people’s input on scientific manuscripts and to avoid the use of derogatory terms, such as “bushmen.” It also requires researchers to compensate people for participating in studies, whether with money, knowledge, jobs, or training. 

Discovered a century ago in what is now Zambia, the Kabwe 1 skull has spent decades in London’s Natural History Museum, despite repeated calls for its repatriation.
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Researchers in Africa have also been demanding that fossil specimens taken from the continent be returned. One of the highest profile cases involves the Kabwe skull, a Homo heidelbergensis specimen kept in London’s Natural History Museum that researchers have asked be returned to its home country of Zambia. Repatriating fossil finds and ensuring new ones stay in their country of discovery is part of a wider effort to bolster African scientists’ ability to “take control of the research in their areas,” anthropologist Eleanor Scerri of the Max Planck Institute in Germany told The Scientist last year. 

Some scientific journals are playing their part in trying to decolonize science, too. In a 2018 editorial, The Lancet Global Health announced an initiative to favor papers that include authors from the countries in which research was done over papers listing only authors from other, more wealthy countries. “The issue is clearly not straightforward, especially in this era of open data,” the journals’ editors wrote, adding that “an outright ‘ban’ on submissions without author representation from the country of study may have unintended consequences. . . . However, we strongly encourage those embarking on secondary analyses to recruit, and involve at all stages of the research and publication process, suitably qualified local researchers.” Critics noted that the policy wouldn’t stop authors from higher-income countries nabbing the more-prestigious first and last author positions on papers, potentially perpetuating the gap in rewards for local and foreign researchers on a project.

Another question related to authorship that’s arisen is how to recognize the expertise of local guides and field workers, notes Mark Nesbitt, a senior research leader at Kew. Those individuals “may or may not be in a position to write words in the paper, but their expertise is absolutely fundamental to the work being done,” he tells The Scientist

Being inclusive, beginning to end

James Smith of the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine commended The Lancet Global Health’s initiative, but noted in a reply to the editorial in the August 2018 issue that more-inclusive authorship policies don’t address the “need for a diversity of perspectives at all stages in knowledge production for global health—from the prioritisation of research questions, to the financing of particular research initiatives, and the analysis and interpretation of data.” 

The policy did, however, spark a discussion among global health scientists about beneficial partnerships between North and South, specifically the Childhood Acute Illness and Nutrition Network in Malawi and European & Developing Countries Clinical Trials Partnership (EDCTP), with 16 participating states in Africa. Established more than 15 years ago, the EDCTP has broadened across the African continent; it even put out a rapid call for projects on COVID-19 and has funded 15 to date

“We believe that our model of global health partnership and international collaboration is closing the door to parachute researchers and those who pursue a parasitic rather than symbiotic approach to research in and about Africa,” Moses John Bockarie, EDCTP’s Director of International Cooperation & Head of Africa Office, wrote in 2019 in Quartz Africa. “We are not suggesting that researchers from the global North ought to stay out of Africa. . . . The problem arises when local researchers are sidelined and when no capacity building or skills development occurs.”

Crowder agrees. These kinds of collaborations take humility, an ability to listen, and cultural sensitivity on the part of researchers from the global North, but the benefit is invaluable, he says. “Being anticolonialist seems like a good thing ethically, morally,” he says, “but it’s also smart, if you want to get things done.” 

How Researchers Can Help Decolonize Science

1. Ask questions. Listen to local researchers and community members and commit to humility—you don’t know everything about another person’s country, laws, and customs, nor what’s best for them, says Stanford University marine ecologist Larry Crowder.

2. Check your frame of mind. When entering a collaborative or public engagement project, ask yourself and your colleagues: What are the historical factors, unconscious biases, systemic barriers, or inequalities that might affect this project? Redressing any issues and being mindful of the points of view of the people you’re working with will make it more inclusive, notes Mark Nesbitt of Kew Gardens.

3. Practice cultural sensitivity. Watch your language, Crowder says, because offending a researcher you’d like to collaborate with in another country can close doors quickly. In addition, learn about the colonial context within which Western science developed. That awareness builds an appreciation for other types of knowledge, according to Dina Gilio-Whitaker of California State University San Marcos.

4. Let local scientists lead. Build collaborations that allow in-country researchers to take the lead on field projects. Identify the needs of the community and the interests of local researchers, and don’t impose outside ideas on people with inside knowledge of a country’s political and cultural frameworks, says marine biologist Asha de Vos of Oceanswell, a marine conservation research and education organization started in Sri Lanka.

5. Return specimens to their home countries. Repatriating plants, fossils, and other specimens allows local researchers to take charge of botanical or archeological investigations within their countries, anthropologist Eleanor Scerri of the Max Planck Institute in Germany told The Scientist last year.

6. Share publication authorship. Include local scientists who took part in the work on the list of authors for papers and reports from the project, giving them lead author position if they spearheaded the work, editors at The Lancet Global Health argued in 2018.

Correction (January 8, 2021): A previous version of this story misstated Asha de Vos’s affiliation and level of education at the time of her discovery of a new whale population. She is not with the Sri Lankan Blue Whale Project but Oceanswell, and she had only finished her undergraduate degree and was not yet a graduate student when she noticed the whale fecal plumes off the coast of Sri Lanka. The Scientist regrets the errors.