“Decolonise STEM” symposium notes (also: please don’t deport my colleague!)

A few weeks ago, I attended a Decolonise STEM symposium at UCL (videos available on their website soon, minus the Q&As). It was a great event, passionately and sensitively put together by a collective of concerned undergraduate and postgraduate scientists. It was useful both in terms of practical guidance, but also in terms of understanding the political and philosophical issues that continue to lead to problems in science teaching and research. The impact of these issues was made painfully apparent by the threat of deportation that one of the speakers, Furaha Asani (University of Leicester), received a couple of days after her presentation. Since then, she has made a video about her situation, has also spoken to the press, and has protested the framing of her situation by the press. She is currently looked after by the UCU and some legal support.

There are a number of interrelated issues that participants brought up in their presentations. (Unfortunately, I have lost my notes, but I will try to reconstruct the debates from memory, and rectify errors once the talks are up on the website.) The biggest issue was the self-professed objectivity of science that does not allow any space for racism, sexism, ableism etc. This strongly contrasted with the speakers’ data – Nuzhat Tabassum offered some depressing statistics about the non-existent “pipeline” from student to staff – as well as their experiences of both overt racism and microaggressions, whether it was BME researchers being asked what they were doing in the sciences, or BME researchers being excluded from teams (much of science is team based work). Most of the speakers were women who were struggling with a double penalty in the supposedly neutral science world. Sometimes class and disability added to the representational burden. Archaeologist Alex Fitzpatrick, for example, was told that she would normally be a research object – why would she want to do archaeology?

The perception of neutrality became replicated with field sites. Whether these were outer space or on-goingly colonised territories, field sites were regarded as neutral and naturally open to White scientists’ research. At least two of the speakers also commented on the naming of sites and objects, whether these were indigenous Australian lands or objects in space such as the hugely inappropriate Ultima Thule (see presentation by Divya M. Persaud). Scientists who used the indigenous names or critiqued racist descriptions were either ‘corrected’ or regarded as unnecessarily difficult. The violence done through both racist naming and indigenous erasure was regarded as ‘non-rational’ and emotional.

Further, speakers and participants felt that science lecturers regarded science as a European rather than a global project, with ran across fields from computer science through to archaeology. White people go out and do stuff/teach to others, while the rest of the world receives. No mention, for example, of the Middle East effectively saving Europe’s ass after the disastrous Middle Ages. No mention of Black scientists whose work was taken over but not recognised by others, or who were barred from obtaining university degrees. The fact that racialised people are seen as receivers was further emphasised by Arianne Shahvisi who pointed to the intensely racist landscape of the NHS, both in terms of staff and patient treatment under an on-going ‘hostile environment’ – which, for her, is as old as the NHS in 1948.

Image: Slides from Furaha Asani’s presentation at Decolonise STEM

A key question was also how to do science with ‘decolonial’ ethics in mind. After all, as Christine Yao emphasised in her keynote (citing Tuck and Yang), decolonisation should not just remain a metaphor. Andrea Jimenez, for example, lamented that it is really difficult to do ethical research in a university landscape that demands certain kinds of ‘products’ from the researcher. Furaha Asani provided practical guidance on how to be a good ally (as audience, support, as aggressor willing to unlearn) and how to check your privilege and responsibility. Syed Mustafa Ali provided some very detailed guidance for “decolonial computing”. He, first of all, discussed the coloniality of computing, both in terms of its history and  present power inequalities (you can find his presentation here). He pointed to the impulses that led to the creation of computing, e.g. it was tied up with war efforts while many countries were still fighting to decolonise. He showed how computing is still used for surveillance of racialised Others, how developing countries may be forced to host more data centres, and how programming languages are shaped by racism (and sexism). Decolonial computing, for him, would be computing from the margin, that does not just accept/use existing ways of programming, but contests it. In addition, Ali recommended the following:

“Practitioners and researchers adopting a decolonial computing perspective are required, at a minimum, to do the following: Firstly, consider their geo-political and body-political orientation when designing, building, researching or theorizing about computing phenomena; and secondly, embrace the ‘decolonial option’ as an ethics, attempting to think through what it might mean to design and build computing systems with and for those situated at the peripheries of the world system, informed by the epistemologies located at such sites, with a view to undermining the asymmetry of local-global power relationships and effecting the ‘decentering’ of Eurocentric / West-centric universals.” (Ali, 2016)

What can geographers (human AND physical) take away from this? Some recommendations:

  • Don’t pretend nothing is happening. Science has never been neutral.
  • Historically and geographically contextualise your subject, especially when it includes history of science. For example, I include an overview of European science in relation to science around the world (e.g. the Renaissance-Middle East relation, BBC Science and Islam as an example).
  • Don’t use the argument that ‘science has always been international’ as an excuse to not make changes to your teaching and teaching materials
  • Cite beyond the people you know, and look at what’s going on in your field as much as you can
  • Educate yourself about the struggles your colleagues and students might be going through, and support them in non-patronising ways.
  • Question scientific framing and related history/geography e.g. taxonomy, naming, purpose, competition
  • Question privileges of access, whether this is in terms of field sites, jobs or funding
  • Look at the ethics of research and relations with research partners: what are the power inequalities in this project? Can you do something to change this (change funder, change your research partner’s status/deal)
  • Look at publishing ethics: is the author hierarchy fair? How can colleagues from less well resourced countries be supported in an unequal publishing world?
  • Most importantly: do listen and unlearn as much as you can from how you were taught, but don’t demand intellectual and emotional labour from others to make your curriculum less White-centric. Go to relevant events – they are taking place all over the country. It’s literally your job!

More points to follow. There will also be at least one “Decolonise STEM” themed session on physical geography at the next RGS-IBG conference in London. The conference theme is “borders”, and it is led by Professor Uma Kothari. Stay tuned!


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