Updated: Nov 4, 2019
Colonialism in science (and colonialism more broadly) has been on my mind recently. As an American scientist conducting research on a culturally important and potentially economically valuable plant in South Africa (a country with a complicated and problematic history of colonialism), it seems critical that I consider how to avoid reinforcing damaging patterns of entitlement, oppression, and exploitation. Consequently, I have been reflecting on how to balance my academic objectives with the political and social history of exploitation in South Africa. I am still trying to understand the complex, historical (and contemporary) relationships that have perpetuated these issues, but I wanted to share my current perspective on colonialism, science, and resource ownership.
As I understand it, there are two main ways that colonialism has defined (and continues to define) science. The first of which is the general whitewashing of academic curricula. The typical science course leaves students with the impression that science has been dominated by white men and western thought from its inception. However, there are many examples of early non-western societies that were incredibly advanced (i.e the Moors - look them up if you don’t know what I’m talking about), but these have rarely been celebrated, taught, or integrated into modern science curricula. Shifting this paradigm is an important step towards decolonizing science and increasing global equality. It requires that we minimize the disproportionate legacy of European thought in education and build a more inclusive system based on mutual respect. This will necessitate a major shift in our educational systems, including the integration of non-western ideas into scientific curricula, increasing representation of people from diverse backgrounds, communicating science in languages other than English, and respecting local and traditional knowledge. It seems obvious to me, but I should point out that decolonizing science will have numerous benefits to society. The inclusion of different perspectives will enhance our ability to accurately understand the world, improve science communication, and lead to innovation. However, these changes cannot happen without intentional, comprehensive, and collective effort. Just talking about diversity and inclusion is not enough, and yet this seems to be where the effort ends for many. To truly progress beyond the history of colonialism we need concrete action. We need an updated mindset. We need to acknowledge the complexity and hypocrisy of men like Darwin (who considered the Aborigines "savages" and even referred to a "preferred race" in Origin of Species). We need to recognize and celebrate the achievements of non-western scientists and integrate this into our teaching, writing, and recruiting. Simply put, this means being open to different ideas. It means taking a chance on someone with a different background. And sometimes, it means doing things the hard way.
The second way in which colonialism has impacted science is through the extraction of materials and information from colonized nations. Much of the knowledge that we have about the natural world was gained though the removal of natural resources and materials from former colonies by scientists who rode the wave of colonialism in order to access places, people, and materials that would have been inaccessible to them otherwise. Scientists were long associated with explorers who traveled to exotic places, learned about the local flora and fauna, used it to develop theories and technologies, and for the most part never returned anything to the people and places where the materials were collected. This practice has supported scientific innovations and insights throughout time, but it has also generated and maintained global inequality. Today, there are various provisions and regulations in place (i.e. the Nagoya Protocol) that are aimed at preventing (minimizing) the illegal transport (theft) of biological and genetic resources. These regulations help, but I believe that we need to go further. To fully decolonize science, western institutions holding scientific collections from former colonies should think deeply about the political context of colonization and consider repatriating scientific specimens to their rightful home. Additionally, there is a need to invest in building local infrastructure, systems, and expertise for utilizing, innovating, and working with biological resources in former colonies. Scientific collaborations between institutions in different countries can be a productive way to share skills, knowledge, and can facilitate the transfer of intellectual insights between partners. However, collaborations can also lead to dependency, particularly when an economically weaker institution collaborates exclusively with economically stronger institutions.
In my efforts to understand this topic, I have had numerous conversations with colleagues, friends, and strangers over the past months. We have discussed resource ownership, the equitable transfer of information, and minimizing extraction of intellectual, botanical, and genetic resources from former colonies. I found that most people were sympathetic to my point of view, and some were even thinking deeply about these issues. I really do believe that these conversations help, but they are not enough. They don’t even come close to being enough.
I don’t know exactly how to tackle these issues, but I am committed to trying. My current work is focused on understanding the biology of the resurrection plant, Myrothamnus flabellifolia, an incredibly resilient plant with numerous emerging medicinal applications and promising translational utility for crop improvement. The last thing that I want is for my work on M. flabellifolia to benefit only academics and other privileged demographics. As a start, I intend to keep the biological and intellectual resources associated with my work in South Africa. Where I have the opportunity, I will work within the local system to build a research team. The materials and expertise should stay where they belong. I'll come and go.