What does ‘decolonising’ STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) involve?
How do the legacies of colonialism impact scientific communities?
To address entrenched systems of power and privilege in our profession, what does true ‘inclusion’ actually entail?
The Mathematical, Physical and Life Sciences Division is grappling with each of these questions within our academic departments and across the division. Acknowledging the legacies of colonialism takes different forms depending on the discipline. From understanding the history (and troubling continuation) of scientific racism in biology – with racial categorisation, eugenics and human zoos from the 19th century – to studying the ways that our deep-rooted biases are manifested in digital technologies, artificial intelligence and machine learning; the issues are complex and wide-ranging. As we work towards greater inclusion, we need to broaden our understanding of what constitutes ‘scientific knowledge’, and reckon with our histories of exclusion that prioritise and elevate ‘Western’ approaches.
Discussions involving ‘decolonising’ STEM often focus on the curriculum – what is being taught, how it is being taught, and what is missing. Focusing on the ‘science’ without providing any historical, social or political context, or broader discussion of moral or ethical implications of scientific research, leads to missed learning opportunities for students. To support our academics and lecturers to critically examine their course content and work towards a more inclusive curriculum, the division has created the Diversifying STEM Curriculum project, collaborating with historians and the History of Science Museum. Undergraduate students in science will work with and be supervised by historians of science on summer projects to develop an online repository of materials available for those teaching undergraduate courses in STEM subjects. The material will include a critical understanding of historical context of key scientific concepts, theorems, and research. It will also highlight and discuss important contributions from a diverse range of people including those who may have been side-lined or not given the recognition they deserve. The aim is to broaden student learning to have a better understanding of: the global historical and social context to scientific research; the diverse range of people who have contributed to scientific knowledge construction; colonial contexts in which ideas about whose knowledge is ‘scientific’ have been developed and deployed and their consequences for indigenous knowledge; and historical work revising older narratives of scientific progress.
Beyond the curriculum, the legacies of colonialism influence our very ideas about what constitutes ‘science’ and who ‘scientists’ are. Historical efforts of British scientists (many from Oxford) to extract and exploit resources, specimens and knowledge from colonised countries and people, intertwine science with imperialism and notions of white supremacy which devalue indigenous knowledge. ‘Science’ and ‘modernity’, and ideas of scientific ‘advancement’ or ‘progress’ have been given a ‘Western’ frame. History has shown us many examples of instances where contributions from women and people who are racially and ethnically minoritised have been ignored or appropriated.
This has influenced popular perceptions that maths and science are done by genius individuals (typically seen as older white men), on their own, and without failure. Instead, scientific research is messy – successes are often the result of hardworking people within a larger team, who work iteratively and incrementally toward scientific goals, building on developments from others in the field. Idolising key figures who gain accolades masks the contributions of many others along the journey to ‘success’. ‘Decolonising’ STEM involves challenging the accepted western-centric ideas of ‘objectivity’, ‘expertise’, and ‘merit’. These are not neutral terms, but include specific value judgments that guide perceptions of who should belong in our scientific community, with many of the norms associated with how we perceive, as a colonial power, ‘success’. Science is a product of the social, political, and economic landscape in which it is produced – influencing the questions we decide to explore, and the research that is ultimately funded and supported. Systemic (global) inequalities are exposed when considering issues such as where research is conducted (and who has access to travel and fieldwork), available funding sources and infrastructure, the authoring and publishing of papers, power dynamics at play in international collaborations, and whether meaningful community engagement, input and investment are achieved (or better yet, community-led research opportunities explored).
We need to consider whom is included (or excluded) in our institution, whom we memorialise, and the wider environment and culture from which our staff and students operate. To reframe what it means to be a scientist and to ‘do science’, our division has pioneered projects such as Beyond Boundaries, showcasing Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic scientists for an art competition open to Oxfordshire state school pupils in Years 5-8 who create art based on current scientific research; and a Just Add Imagination digital and print resource (as part of our Parents for STEM Futures project) that profiled a diverse range of staff, students and alumni, alongside creative and artistic STEM activities that families could do at home. Having real and relatable role models is important for showing that people from all backgrounds can be scientists.
At its core, our work to diversify and decolonise STEM seeks to move beyond ‘one-off’, ‘add-on’, or superficial approaches to change (which risk another form of ‘colonisation’, perpetuating existing structures) towards removing structural hierarchies that privilege certain knowledge and certain peoples over others. We still have much to do, and are committed, through the work of our ED&I Steering Group and ED&I Fellows to implement our divisional action plan and take an interdisciplinary approach to tackle these challenges. We strive for meaningful, transformative change that ultimately leads us to better science, and real solutions and outcomes that benefit our global communities.
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