Calls have been growing across many academic fields for the necessity of decolonising science, both as a means of addressing the legacy of imperialism and broadening the scope and inclusivity of the collective human endeavour. Yet these discussions have been slow to take root in ecology. Many ecologists complacently assume that they are above this — we work with international collaborators in countries around the world, often living and working alongside local scientists with whom we interact with as equals (or at least that’s what we tell ourselves). Can we shrug off this latest movement as the well-meaning but unnecessary moaning of pious social scientists?
No. And this ought to be glaringly obvious.
Those of us who work in the tropics are all familiar with the classic study sites: Barro Colorado Island in Panama, La Selva in Costa Rica, Danum Valley in Malaysia… the list could go on. What unites all these sites is that they were usually established, and are often still run, by white scientists from First World countries (mainly Europe, North America and Australia). They are visited by streams of researchers and students from these First World countries. While the field centres are staffed by locals and include local scientists in their research programs, the funding to support them comes primarily from overseas.
Many ecology programs in First World universities include a glamorous field trip to an exotic location where our students can learn about applied conservation. They travel to Africa, South America or Southeast Asia and spend a few weeks visiting field sites which have been made famous through the published work of mainly white First World scientists, sometimes their own instructors. Often these field courses employ local teachers and guides, but they are based at local institutions. Locals are there to support the visiting experts, not to be celebrated for their own local research programs.
We have our classic field sites in the First World too. But how many visitors from the developing world come to see them? Why are there no Africans in Wytham Woods, studying the dynamics of a temperate woodland? Where are the Brazilians in Hubbard Brook? How many Indonesian scientists make a pilgrimage to see the Daintree Forest in Australia?*
There is one obvious reason why developing world scientists don’t visit these sites for research: money. Yet this is not an insuperable barrier. If we genuinely cared about developing international science, and believed that our cherished major study sites were of international importance, then we could find a way. In the same way as a British forester could develop sufficient expertise to interpret a study site in Africa, surely a Ugandan forester would be able to shed some light on what’s happening in a forest in Oxfordshire. Has anyone thought to ask?
More important is that they probably don’t care. Our favoured locations are much less interesting than we would like to believe, and have little to say to scientists in other countries. The one-way flow of assumed expertise and insight is a glaring failure in the way our entire field operates. In short, we need to decolonise ecology.
In a new paper in Biotropica we draw attention to this problem and suggest three responsibilities that researchers from the developed world need to accept as part of a moral imperative to decolonise our field.**
The first is a recognition of objectivity; ecologists from the Global North bring a set of priorities, paradigms and assumptions that are not always shared by the people living in the countries in which we work. The solution is not to indoctrinate the locals in our way of thinking, but to learn what their own perspectives are, and fully incorporate them in our research programs.
Secondly, we can stop calling our field sites ‘remote’ just because they require a long plane flight to reach and are found in places without reliable running water. To many people they are simply ‘home’. We should recognise and respect their expertise, even though it is exhibited in different ways from our own. If we genuinely wish to support local people then we should seek to arrive as supporting collaborators in achieving their goals, not solely ours. That would be truly impactful research.
Finally, we should start reflecting on our own background and how it inflects our conduct as researchers. Positionality statements are a common starting point in the humanities literature but remain very rare in science. This isn’t just a tick-box exercise for which we need to find an appropriately contrite form of words before carrying on as before. We need to acknowledge that the neutral scientific voice is a myth, one which disguises our own agency while writing out the contributions of others, particularly the locals we rely upon. We need to reflect on and state our potential biases in the same way as we would expect a declaration of conflict of interest or funding sources.
None of these prescriptions are inherently difficult, it’s just that the structures of modern science do not currently provide incentives for achieving them. But we created the structures of science. It’s our responsibility to change them.
This is an updated version of an article I wrote for a newsletter a few years ago. My thinking has been greatly refined through discussions with Kate Baker and Mark Griffiths, my coauthors on our paper in Biotropica.
* To anyone reading and planning a comment saying “I took some African ecologists to Wytham, look, here’s a photo”, please stop and think about whether that either invalidates or reinforces my argument.
** In case you’re wondering how three white Europeans feel that they have a right to weigh in on this, then another blog post on this will follow, but briefly: in cases of inequality, it’s the responsibility of those in a position of privilege to take action, not to wait for someone with less of a platform to tell them that they need to.