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Decolonizing Science?

This NSF Advancing Informal STEM Learning (AISL)-funded Science and Ethics in Informal STEM Contexts (DRL- 2040350) project was designed to explore research ethics in science and the history of science, particularly within informal STEM institutions, through the lenses of multiple cultural traditions, and to produce a documentary, tentatively titled Decolonizing Science? to engage both scientists and informal STEM educators in thinking more inclusively about STEM.

Here, project PI Kendall Moore, co-PI Amelia Moore, and producers Martha Merson and Adrian Cato reflect on their process, lived experiences, and how they hope their work will impact the field.

Alex DeCiccio (Camera), Dean Paula Bontempi, PhD, Graduate School for Oceanography, Lorén Spears, Executive Director, Tomaquag Museum, Kendall Moore, PhD, Director. Photo Credit: Amelia Moore, PhD

 

Pictured Above: Alex DeCiccio (Camera), Dean Paula Bontempi, PhD, Graduate School for Oceanography, Lorén Spears, Executive Director, Tomaquag Museum, Kendall Moore, PhD, Director. Photo Credit: Amelia Moore, PhD

Martha Merson, Associate Producer: A man walks into a bar … specifically the chic Liberty Lobby Bar in Boston. Most nights, it’s a lively scene with customers drinking and laughing. The bar is known for its historic details and ambience. What some of the customers don’t know is that it’s located in a former prison. This scene represents a certain kind of privilege that enables some people to move in a carefree way through spaces that bear traces of others’ misery.

You don’t have to go to the Liberty Lobby Bar to witness such dissonance. In natural history museums and parks, the same dynamic plays out. Consider repatriation. Prior to joining this project, I saw repatriation as an effort to return objects such as ancient pottery housed in European or American museum collections to their countries of origin. During conversations with museum staff for the Decolonizing Science? film, I learned that repatriation can involve not just artifacts. Museums often store or display human remains in ways that are upsetting to Indigenous people. It is clear that slow compliance with the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (1990) undermines the outreach that museum educators are doing. At the same time that museum staff attempt to collaborate with affected communities, and to recruit and retain colleagues of color, cultural institutions are telegraphing a different message about their priorities. Holding tightly to collections signals their loyalty to those who felt entitled to take that which never belonged to them, even if the collections were assembled 100 or more years ago.

The conversations we’ve had during our project have been a wake-up call to revisit how we build knowledge and on whose bodies. The Decolonizing Science? film team recognizes that overlooking history has a cost. Throughout our project, we, scientists and educators, look at the ethics of what we do and how our ethical principles inform our decisions and practices. The film will invite viewers to examine the way racism and western science co-evolved. We trace the long tendrils and enduring impact of colonial science, and how vestiges of colonization still operate in science today.

Martha Merson is an educator at TERC, a Massachusetts-based nonprofit dedicated to developing a deeper understanding of learning and teaching, where she draws on visual arts and storytelling to enhance science, math, environmental health, and literacy learning for adults and youth in out-of-school settings.

Amelia Moore, co-PI: As a social scientist who participates in interdisciplinary research projects, I often consider the ethical bounds of that research. For many years I have chafed at our limited understanding of research ethics, without being able to articulate exactly why I was uncomfortable. My first book, Destination Anthropocene: Science and Tourism in The Bahamas, expressed my dissatisfaction with the way international environmental research was and is practiced in a nation that is experienced as simultaneously postcolonial and neocolonial. But since I completed that manuscript, I have come to realize that ethics require more than increased participation and inclusion in scientific research and more than raised awareness about inequity and historical disparity.

Today, I think that in order to conduct and communicate ethical research, scientists need to fundamentally reimagine and reconstruct their practices. They must reconsider the concepts that ground their inquiry, re-examine the methods that produce information, and be more thoughtful about the networks in which the knowledge circulates. Spaces that offer informal learning, such as museums and science centers, can be catalysts for an ethical awakening in science, including but not limited to the high degree of colonial complicity.

Working on this film has required the production team to think about our identities and take responsibility for our own complicity. I am a biracial woman of color and an associate professor who has been part of the academy for almost twenty years. In all that time, I have never worked with a PI who was also a woman of color or a Black woman. I have never worked with a PI whose ancestors were also enslaved. The overwhelming majority of my PIs, co-PIs, and formal and informal research partners have been white people, even when we were working in majority non-white countries or with majority non-white populations. For the first time, I am working on a team where white fragility does not have to be assuaged in meetings, communications, decision making, or outreach plans. For the first time I am part of a project where the foundational and insidious injustices of enslavement, genocide, militarism, and extractivism can be examined out in the open, in plain sight: exactly where they belong in a project about American science.

Amelia Moore, PhD, is an associate professor in the Department of Marine Affairs at the University of Rhode Island whose practice has evolved to center on feminist science and technology studies, black feminist theory, anticolonial scholarship, and justice work.

Kendall Moore, PI and Director: In 2018, I worked on the film Can We Talk? Difficult Conversations with Underrepresented People of Color: Sense of Belonging in STEM, which  was a transformative experience for me. For one, it uncovered a lot of traumas that so many people of color have experienced—and continue to experience—in STEM. In post-screening workshops and discussions, we continue to raise questions about creating spaces for marginalized faculty and students, primarily at predominately white institutions (PWIs). Although these questions and pressure for action will hopefully lead to more people of color feeling comfortable in STEM, we are always reminded that these spaces were never designed for racial inclusion and equity.

Even though my background is not in STEM, the process of making the films made me face the personal contortions I have had to endure over the past twenty years to feel like I am a good fit for the academy. I was told multiple times that I didn’t belong, or that I shouldn’t belong. How did I manage to find a way to belong, and what was the expiration date on that belonging card, which symbolically (but not actually) came in the form of a full professorship with tenure? 

Once we started people talking, we realized we had more to say. Can We Talk? then led to part two and we are working on a series.

The first film very earnestly asks how people of color have been denied a sense of belonging. The second film asks white allies what can be done about it: for example, how to respond structurally to barriers such as standardized entrance tests or arbitrarily set numbers of recommendations. And the third film, which we are working on now, interrogates why people of color may never feel a sense of belonging. The Can We Talk? films are not only helping to clear space for us to see the issue and to have difficult conversations, but they represent an ethical pivot, moving from a response of  ”I did not know that” to Now that I know, what now can I do with this new knowledge?

After facilitating many workshops at universities, colleges, nonprofits, and federal agencies, it became apparent that our conversations, although we were calling them difficult, weren’t as deep as they needed to be. Confronting these issues is central as we work on the current film, tentatively titled Decolonizing Science?. The film looks at how western science was established as the dominant form of inquiry in the United States. After watching the film, audiences should be able to make the connection between colonization, capitalism, and racism, as the key underpinnings to western science in the United States. More important is what is being done to change it. 

This project will likely make most scientists uncomfortable. I am sure that many people will wonder why we are talking about it. For me to fully appreciate why we’re talking about it, I had to think about my own family’s story. I am a descendant of slaves on both sides of my family, in Missouri and Virginia. My mother was one of the first Black graduates from the University of Maryland in the late 1950s. She grew up in segregated Baltimore and gave birth to two daughters who were expected to go to college and beyond. My great-great-great-grandmother, who was freed in Virginia, worked so that she could purchase her own husband out of slavery. After she purchased him, they moved to southern Pennsylvania, where my extended family still lives.

My sister attended Johns Hopkins University, a university known for experimentation on Black bodies. Today, she is the head midwife at a hospital in Baltimore, where she has to use gynecological instruments that are named after J. Marion Sims, known as the “father of modern obstetrics and gynecology,” a white man who did surgeries on enslaved women without anesthesia because he subscribed to the widely held belief that Black people don’t feel pain. Recently my sister worked with other Black midwives to remove race as a factor in the birthing calculator, which they consult to help decide which patients are likely to need a C-section. Given that race is a social construct created by white European philosophers and used by American eugenicist, racist, pseudo-scientists, this factor was long overdue to be removed.

With each generation there are many remarkable stories about Black people merely trying to belong here in the United States. A professor once told my sister that she would have to be the first one “off the back of the bus" if seats were needed for others in the class.

When you begin to comb through most of the other scientific disciplines, you learn that science in the United States is in fact colonized, populated, and promulgated by some rather vile individuals, methods, histories, and practices. So, to ask the question how can we make you feel a sense of belonging here, now?...seems almost like a cruel joke. And yet, we persist.

My own meditations for this project have taken place at the University of Rhode Island where I am a professor of journalism. I recently learned that a building adjacent to my office is a former slave owner plantation house. So, I am not only a descendant of slaves but one whose office sits on a former slave plantation.

On the other side of campus is the Morrill Building, named in honor of Justin Morrill, whose Morrill Act made it legally possible for settler colonizers to take Indigenous land. The sales from that legalized land dispossession provided the funds to start land-grant schools across the country, including mine. But if that isn’t egregious enough, the university sits on stolen Narragansett land. And only last year did the university finally start offering tuition-free education to members of the tribe. If you are at a land-grant institution, you are on stolen land too. You can learn more at landgrab.edu.

As I had to do with my own family story, we as a nation have to go to the settler colonizer origin story, the core, the substructure, the beginning of it all and take a hard look and have those truly deep conversations. We also have to think about how we listen to one another and think about what we tell ourselves about the truths we hear.

Decolonizing Science? won’t answer many questions, but it will create spaces for us to have honest conversations with each other. If we can talk honestly, thoughtfully, and kindly, while also listening with open hearts, it will be the beginning of the change that we need in science.

I am thrilled that the film can be that open door. Our carefully assembled team hopes that our many thoughtful conversations about how we engage with one another, our subjects, our topics, and the aesthetics spills out into the various social change sites in science to help us rethink what was done and what needs to be done. Things may never be right, but it’s clear that we have an ethical responsibility to make the best effort moving forward, for ourselves and the next generation.

Kendall Moore is a professor of journalism in the Harrington School of Communication and Media at the University of Rhode Island and award-winning documentary filmmaker who has worked as a television journalist focusing on medical, health, race, and environmental issues.

Adrian Cato, research associate: Hanging Rock is a large and well-known rock formation within the Norman Bird Sanctuary in Middletown, Rhode Island, that overlooks the Atlantic Ocean. Within the archival collections of the Salve Regina campus nearby are a series of postcards entitled the “Newport Postcard Collection.”

What stands out in this collection are the postcards depicting a rock structure described as Negro’s Head. It’s not subtle: at Hanging Rock, there is an area named Negro’s Head where past administrators and visitors enjoyed picnics and a view of a rock formation. The name of the formation was influenced by the racist science of phrenology in which head shape and formation were linked to racial inferiority. This is not a one-off occurrence. There is a deep and largely unspoken history of racist naming in federally and state recognized natural spaces. The Norman Bird Sanctuary itself may not be aware of its own trail history.

The postcard is a reminder of the otherization that plagues these spaces. The rock's physical location in an area that is named a sanctuary feels like cruel irony. The word sanctuary is almost the antithesis of what the postcard conveys—sanctuary is about being seen, understood, and welcomed.

This brings me to the essential nature of our work in this film. The project has indeed been a sanctuary for me—a space of safety, mutual understanding, and support. Addressing colonialism and silenced legacies of violence within the sciences is an act to see both those that have passed on—their lives and labor contributing to what we know as science today—and those seeking to reimagine how we conduct science in the present.

From lives lost in the forced crossing of the Atlantic that continue to haunt the fields of maritime archaeology and deep seabed ecology (Philip 2008), to the given names that were once attached to human remains in museum collections, we need sanctuaries where we can confront and process the ways that inquiry has been fueled by violent and violating legacies of the past, of lives unseen. What does it mean to defend the dead? (Sharpe 2016) . As practitioners seeking to build better worlds, we must continue to matter to those who are unseen—bringing to light their memories, their trauma, and their legacies.

Adrian Cato, a research associate at the University of Rhode Island, will soon be a doctoral student at Emory University in Georgia.

Concluding thoughts Amelia: For all of us, the film project is important personally and professionally. Like Martha, I see this work as an obligation for personal and professional transformation. Like Kendall, I hope this film will open a door, or more doors, into a reimagination and reformulation of scientific ethics. And like Adrian, I am thinking about this notion of sanctuary as contextually coded by race. Our short-term goal is to share the revelatory collaboration we are building between ourselves and the contributors to the film who are developing and inhabiting decolonial spaces. Our process can serve as one modest model for research ethics writ large. Our long-term goal is to forever change what we think and do when we teach and practice science.

 

References

Sharpe, C.E. (2016). In the Wake: On Blackness and Being. Durham: Duke University Press.

Philip, M. N., & Boateng, S. A. (2008). Zong!. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press.