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Colonialism still influences the earth sciences today — and that’s a big problem for research

Western biases still pervade research

THAILAND-MYANMAR-ECONOMY-PALAEONTOLOGY
“Amber hunters” on a quest for a Jurassic Park-style discovery of dinosaur remains sift through mounds of the precious resin in Myanmar — a lucrative trade that captivates palaeontologists but also fuels a decades-long conflict in the far north. 
Photo credit should read LILLIAN SUWANRUMPHA/AFP via Getty Images

Colonialism is so entangled in earth sciences that its ugly legacy still influences research today. Scientists are struggling to undo the damage that colonization has had on their fields, which have been dominated mostly by white men from wealthy nations over the years.

The latest evidence is a study published last week that finds that 97 percent of fossil data in a major, global database comes from authors based in North America and Western Europe— indicating that scientists from western nations hold a global “monopoly over palaeontological knowledge production.” The authors say it’s a symptom of researchers from those nations “parachuting” into other countries and taking what they find away with them.

Once researchers return to their home institutions, their findings are often inaccessible to people from the places where the research was conducted — often the same places where colonizers previously planted their flags without regard for the people who already lived there. Today, that creates barriers for local experts, whose contributions would be huge assets to our understanding of the world.

“Basically what is happening is a lot of people are being denied the knowledge that they should have in the first place,” says Nussaïbah Raja-Schoob, a paleobiologist and lead author of the new study published in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution.

The problem spreads way beyond paleontology. Across the earth sciences, locking away knowledge at elite institutions in the Global North impedes studies into the forces that shape the natural world. The inequity in who is conducting research and has access to data also risks biasing new research that’s supposed to help us understand what the world will look like in the future, says Raja-Schoob, who studies coral reef evolution.

Raja-Schoob uses the fossil record to understand when corals went extinct, how they went extinct, and what survived. Her research relies on the very same global database that she found is composed almost entirely of works published by authors from North America and Western Europe. She worries that if the fossil record reflects biases in how mostly western researchers collect data, that it might influence the results of that research. Certain regions appear to be overrepresented in paleontological research, for example, which can create sampling biases. Myanmar, the Dominican Republic, and Morocco, for example, are among the most popular “research destinations,” according to her new study.

Biases in the data Raja-Schoob works with are concerning because that data forms the foundation of scientific predictions about what might happen to corals in the future as the climate changes. The outlook for coral reefs is of particular importance because scientists are racing to save them from being wiped off the planet. Ninety-nine percent of coral reefs around the world are expected to die off in the future if greenhouse gas emissions from burning fossil fuels continue unabated.

The western bias in the earth sciences does more than skew our knowledge toward certain corners of the planet. According to Aline Ghilardi, one of Raja-Schoob’s co-authors and a paleontologist at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Norte, it could lead to “the delay or even the impediment of great innovations and discoveries in a scientific field due to the lack of geographically comprehensive data, the plurality of ideas and good local knowledge.”

“This power imbalance can also turn many brilliant minds away from science, simply because they were not born in a ‘scientific power center’ or speaking English as their native language,” Ghilardi wrote in an email to The Verge.

The abundance of western researchers doing fieldwork in foreign countries can fuel other problems as well. Raja-Schoob points to amber — fossilized tree resin that might encase an insect, lizard, or even a dinosaur tail — as a particularly egregious example. No local Burmese researcher has ever been named in a paper on fossils found in Myanmar amber, Raja-Schoob and colleagues have found in their research. Meanwhile, the purchase of Myanmar amber for paleontological research concentrated overseas is tied to human rights abuses to the extent that some paleontologists have pushed for a boycott.

“Colonialism has been sort of a background for my own career and experiences in ecology because I am from India,” says Madhusudan Katti, an associate professor at North Carolina State University.

As a PhD student in the 1990s, Katti studied warblers in India. But he couldn’t find much of the data he was looking for, about the birds’ migration across the Indian subcontinent, in India. Katti, who was enrolled in a US university at the time, happened to have a British professor who helped him gain access to a British museum with a much larger collection. Many researchers outside of the West aren’t so lucky, he says.

Katti co-authored a paper in May about decolonizing ecology. It included a map showing that countries in Africa and South America that were formerly colonized by European powers have the most bird species named after European surnames. Today, there’s a whole movement to scrap racist bird names. If successful, up to 150 birds named after people who benefited from slavery might get new monikers. There are also activists pushing for museums to give back the fossils, antiquities, and specimens they’ve collected from the Global South over generations without locals’ consent.

National parks and other “protected areas” are another prevalent example of how the colonial mentality seeps into modern-day conservation efforts, Katti says. These landscapes are typically legally protected from urban development, but usually only after their original inhabitants, who lived there for generations without destroying the landscape, were pushed out.

“We’ve constrained our thinking about ecosystems by thinking of people and nature as separate categories. And I think that’s an exclusive result of the European colonial outlook,” Katti says. To heal old wounds and keep history from repeating itself, Katti’s paper emphasizes honoring local knowledge and expertise. There’s growing research, for instance, on ecosystems that flourish under Indigenous guardianship.

There are ways to chip away at the injustices embedded in the foundations of the earth sciences. Raja-Schoob, Ghilardi, and Katti have outlined some of them in their recently published papers. Acknowledging that sordid history is a start, they write. From there, steps can be taken to make sure more people have access to the body of knowledge that’s become concentrated in museums and academic institutions across Europe and North America.

Improved access might involve repatriating items in museums back to the communities they were taken from, a movement that’s been picking up steam in places like New York City. Activists have targeted the American Museum of Natural History, for instance, demanding that “human remains, sacred things, and objects of power stolen from Indigenous peoples should be returned.”

It’s also important to decolonize the mainstream definition of who is considered an “expert” to make it more inclusive of Indigenous peoples or other local knowledge-keepers, Katti says. They have intimate knowledge of their homelands, even if that isn’t acknowledged with a Phd attached to their names.

Scientists like Raja-Schoob also want to see more pathways into academia for people from underrepresented communities. That can happen through more dedicated funding for collaboration between foreign and local researchers, she and Ghilardi write in their paper. “Our current practice is not sustainable and could also be biasing our science,” she says. “We have to learn how to develop ethical collaborations.”