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Ecology is overwhelmingly white. How can we halt gatekeeping and decolonize ecology?

"In order to shift power dynamics, somebody has to give up power"

Jazmin Murphy

Ecology and Science Journalism

Academic spheres have a severe representation problem. It's no secret that the work of researchers of European descent is published significantly more often β€” and on more prominent platforms β€” than most non-white scientists, especially those identifying as Indigenous. 

"It's taken me a long time to realize how much of the training I received was rooted in the Western colonial science framework," Madhusudan Katti, Associate Professor of Leadership in Public Science at North Carolina State University, said. "I've seen some of the consequences of this kind of colonial framework, or Western gaze, on ecology acting out in India in ways that are not necessarily 'good.'"

For example, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAS) discovered the following last year as part of their Baseline Assessment of Demographic Representation in AAAS/Science Functions:

Needless to say, STEM is in dire need of more cultural diversity; academic knowledge is glaringly Eurocentric across all sciences. Indigenous scientists have been marginalized on multiple levels, Indigenous knowledge has been historically belittled and devalued, and generations of shared ecological learning have been dismissed as "myths," "legends," or make-believe. Yet, when that same knowledge is later "discovered" by a European scholar, it's noted in history as novel. 

As of 2018, only about one-quarter of hiring managers in the life sciences had formal diversity initiatives in practice concerning gender or race. Most of them targeted management and non-management roles. Although a report by the Coalition of State Biosciences Institute (CSBI) didn't show any specific data, surveys showed that board diversity initiatives were much less common.

How Do We Decolonize Ecology? 

These unfortunate realities raise the question of how to silence the echoes of colonialism throughout the sciences (and, more specifically, ecology). A small international group of scientists, led by Christopher Trisos, director of the Climate Risk Lab and Senior Researcher at the University of Cape Town's African Climate & Development Initiative, recently published an article in Nature providing actionable suggestions for moving forward in decolonizing STEM. 

The group adds to a long-standing discourse on approaches to STEM decolonization. For example, conversations about returning to Indigenous naming conventions for species across the world have happened time and again on social media. An article published late last year called for the restoration of Indigenous names in taxonomy, and reignited these discussions. 

That paper, written by Len Norman Gilman, a professor of biogeography at Auckland University of Technology, and Shane Donald Wright, senior lecturer at the University of Auckland, discussed how the switch to Latin naming schemes of species new to European settlers is a form of Indigenous erasure. Naming native fauna and flora was a critical part of Indigenous cultural development long before Europeans ever set foot on the North American continent, especially for "cultural keystone species," or species that were critical parts of everyday life for Indigenous peoples. The refusal to acknowledge Indigenous elders' intimate familiarity with the plant, animal, and forms of microscopic life surrounding and residing within their communities is a direct assault on Native history and scientific progression. 

To make real progress in combating ethnic and racial discrepancies in ecology, Trisos and his colleagues urge STEM professionals to get serious in developing real, actionable solutions for "decoloniality." This term refers to the conscious undoing of systematic Eurocentrism, unraveling of colonialist thinking patterns, and the general divestment from all things stemming from colonialist practices. 

Trisos pointed to the examples of conversations on decoloniality in South African university campuses and the need for demographic transformation of schools with mostly white populations post-Apartheid, when the country became a democracy. "One thing that really struck me there was, I think, keeping these conversations ongoing between faculty and students in a way that makes them living and keeps them as fairly radical spaces so that they're not purely bureaucratized."

Instead of merely going through the motions and allowing decolonization to become a passing fad, Trisos and his colleagues suggest the following actions in their piece:

Decolonize Your Mind

The scientists encourage more widespread acceptance of the fact that there are "multiple ways of knowing." 

Westerners focus too heavily on knowledge that can be assigned quantitative values, graphed, or written in black-and-white terms. Instead, these academics should exercise more openness to learning from oral tradition, non-European artifacts, and corresponding cultural practices that can pass down valuable information about ecological systems. 

Know Your Histories

Westerners' approaches to conservation and related work has, sadly, been used as a weapon in oppressive practices worldwide. Katti points to the National Park Services in the United States as an example, particularly the Western ideology on which the agency is founded, "the separation of people from nature," as Katti puts it. "The National Park model... has caused a lot of displacement of people and active harm."

Indigenous people are continuously displaced from their homes and land, for "settler-colonial conservation projects" that ignore or explicitly harm their traditional practices. Engaging in deep listening to people from non-Western cultures and incorporating their historical and philosophical realities into scientific disciplinary training can help resolve this. 

Decolonize Access

Too much scientific data is collected in the Global South - often with help from participants living in these regions β€” only to later be available for knowledge-sharing exclusively to residents of the Global North upon publication. Funding must be made more available to minority researchers as well, and data sovereignty must be respected for non-white communities. 

Jess Auerbach, Senior Lecturer in Anthropology at North-West University and a co-author on the new paper, explained quite succinctly why this and the following step will be challenging feats: "In order to shift power dynamics, somebody has to give up power." 

Decolonize Expertise

This is one of the most commonly discussed points in decolonizing STEM. Much of Indigenous knowledge is dismissed as anecdotal, feeding into white supremacy in ecology. Openness to numerous ways of knowing, is a direct solution to this problem. Scientific knowledge is not restricted to peer-reviewed journals plagued with bias and gate-keeping.

"You have a lot of non-white knowledge being produced," said Auerbach. "The question is 'Does America listen?' And I think that gets into one of the other pieces that is in this article that is really important to emphasize: knowledge according to who? And because the US and, to some extent, Europe, are the self-appointed gatekeepers of what counts as science and knowledge in the world... we need a recognition of how limited that is."

Practical Ethical Ecology in Inclusive Teams

Cultural diversity often leads to more innovative solutions to diverse sets of research questions, according to the authors. Trisos and his colleagues encourage the widespread understanding of intersectionality and how it influences the lives of non-white people in ecology. Yet, the work shouldn't stop there. They further challenge ecologists to implement that newfound understanding into novel approaches to ecological research and education. 

Ethnic and Racial Discrepancies in Ecological Sciences

The Ecological Society of America (ESA) has conducted several surveys of their membership to inform their ongoing work in diversifying the study of ecology. The most recent survey took place in 2006.

This survey revealed the following demographics:

Although the ESA has not published a demographics survey in more recent years, the organization continues to openly share its efforts to increase its membership's diversity. These pointers that Trisos and his colleagues provide may be just what ecology, and STEM at large, needs to begin growing out of these dramatic discrepancies. 

Auerbach stated, "For the space to become more inclusive, there also has to be less power in the hands of whiteness, and perhaps it's unsurprising that there's going to be some resistance to that. It needs to get to a point where there's a kind of change of consciousness amongst white people as well, in the sense of recognizing that not having diversity equals bad science."

In June 2020, the ESA pledged to "redouble" its work in DEIJ (Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Justice). One of their biggest takeaways from recent community engagement showed that members share a rapidly strengthening sentiment: "ESA leaders must take up these challenges; they are not for the ecological community of color alone to fix." 

Hopefully, other institutions in the field of ecology will follow suit.