Being a scientist means taking sides…

Marine biologist Mary O’Brien says that, “once you’re a scientist, which means as soon as you systematically ask questions about the universe, you take a political side” (1993: 706). These politics happen in ways that seem harmless, but have far reaching effects: you ask some questions and not others (“how much plastics do cod eat, and how does this affect their health?” versus “how much plastic can a cod ingest before mortality occurs?”); we choose to work with some kinds of people and not others (students, community groups, industries, no one); we choose how we work with them (collaboratively, on contract, in solidarity); even the types of measurements we use are political (risk analysis that seeks a threshold of acceptable harm versus assessments based in the precautionary principle and effects at trace doses). In short, creating knowledge is a political act where some values and interests are reproduced and others are not. There is no way around this. We can only be more or less intentional in these choices.

CLEAR aims to make these decisions carefully and transparently based on our values and ethics. Another way to think about values in science is methodologically. All research starts somewhere; in the words of biologist-turned-social-scientist Donna Haraway, all  knowledge is “situated” (Haraway 1988). This situation includes the culture the research is situated in, as well as what Shawn Wilson calls a researcher’s axiology (morals, values, and ethics). Your axiology will determine the types of research questions that seem important and viable, the types of methods that seem appropriate and valid, and the types of research dissemination that are best. For Wilson, as for our lab, our axiology is based on accountability to relationships with other people, to the environment, and to other lab members: “For researchers to be accountable to all our relations, we must make careful choices in our selection of topics, methods of data collection, forms of analysis and finally in the way we present information” (Wilson 2008). Thus, in every step of our scientific process, we aim to be in good relations with land and the wider environment, work with humility and recognize the limits to our own knowledge and methods, and to be accountable to the communities who our research effects the most.

Map from “Densities and relationships of plastic pollution in surface waters of the Eastern Arctic
(Inuit Nunangat),” a paper under review. The map shows places associated with marine surface water plastic research in the Eastern Arctic, including research sites, researcher home bases for first authors on published research on plastics in water in the region, and settlements in homelands. Inuit Nunangat (Inuit homelands) is coloured for reference with different regions of Inuit Nunangat in different shades (Nunatsiavut in orange, Nunavut in yellow, and Nunavik in green), and settlements in Inuit Nunangat are coloured orange. The map shows a clear trend of researchers from the south producing all research in the north germane to the study of plastics in Arctic waters.

A lot of research is colonial, and we work to change those relations. Colonialism is not just about taking Land, though it certainly includes taking Land. Yellowknives Dene  political scientist Glen Coulthard argues that, colonialism is a way to describe relations characterized by domination that keeps land available for settler goals, that gives settlers “ongoing access to land as resource” (Coulthard 2014). These relations include the type of knowledge that is valued (like Western science), the type of knowledge that is extracted for that value (like Indigenous knowledge), the type of relationships with Land and the environment that are privileged (like resource management), the forms of settler laws and regulations that uphold these (like private property), what is taught in schools and how (such as the exclusion of Indigenous thinkers or teaching in English). The list is long. Colonialism is ongoing rather than historical. Colonialism is a set of specific, structured relations that allow these events to occur, make sense, and seem normal (to some). CLEAR’s lab book contains “a wee primer on colonialism” to help orient lab members to what colonialism is—and isn’t. 

Anti-colonialism is a way to describe land relations in opposition to these systems, practices, and values. In science, it means working in a way that does not assume settler and colonial access to Indigenous land for settler and colonial goals, even when those goals are benevolent, well-intentioned, or environmental (see the primer for more). We understand that Western science is only one way to understand the world, and it is not the only way or the best way. We say anti-colonial science instead of decolonial science for many reasons, but mainly because we want to be specific about what we are up to, and what we are not up to; we agree with Eve Tuck and Wayne Yang when they say that decolonization, as the undoing of colonialism, is about returning Land to Indigenous peoples; decolonization is “the repatriation of Indigenous land and life; it is not a metaphor for other things we want to do to improve our societies and schools” like inclusion, consent, humility, solidarity, and reciprocity, all of which are good things but do not necessarily change oppressive land relations (2012, 1). We aim to identify and counter colonial values, concepts, and structures within science and the university through how we do everyday science with the final goal of doing science differently. There are many ways to do anti-colonial science. Some of our techniques include:

Discussion with Alaska Community Action on Toxics, “A Model of Anticolonial Science from an Indigenous Led Marine Science Laboratory,” 2021.

Other anticolonial labs

We are not alone!

  • The Technoscience Research Unit, University of Toronto, led by Dr. Michelle Murphy (Métis): The TRU draws together social justice approaches to Science and Technology Studies from across the university with an emphasis on Indigenous, feminist, queer, environmental, anti-racist and anti-colonial scholarship. 
  • The Collaboratory for Indigenous Data Governance, based in Arizona: The Collaboratory for Indigenous Data Governance develops research, policy, and practice innovations for Indigenous data sovereignty. 
  • The Dark Laboratory, Cornell University, co-led by Tao Leigh Geoff and Jeffrey Plamer (Kiowa): The Dark Laboratory is an engine for collaboration, design, and study of Black and Indigenous ecologies through creative technology.
  • The Summer internship for INdigenous peoples in Genomics (SING) International Consortium, multiple locations (Canada, USA, Australia, Aotearoa).
  • SKC Indigenous Research Center, Salish Kootenai College: The IRC works toward the goal of advancing an Indigenous Research Methodology (IRM) for STEM to produce new knowledge and application of methods for the perpetuation and prosperity of Tribal College institutions and their respective local communities’ unique worldviews.
  • AORTA Coop: AORTA is a worker-owned cooperative of facilitators, consultants, & trainers strengthening movements for social justice and a solidarity economy.
  • Native BioData Consortium, South Dakota: Revolutionizing Indigenous genomics and data sovereignty to decolonize health and environmental research. 
  • Te Rū Rangahau: The Māori Research Laboratory, University of Canterbury: supports the advancement of Indigenous postgraduates in the College and advances research that is responsive to Māori and Indigenous needs and aspirations.
  • The Food Sovereignty Lab: The Food Sovereignty Lab is an interdisciplinary, collaborative effort that is student-designed and community-informed. To fully understand food sovereignty, one must understand the history of the impacts of colonization on the Indigenous nations of this region.
  • Electric Marronage: a collaborative digital/material project based on principles of fugitivity, Black femme freedom, worlds/otherwise, and decolonizing disaspora studies. 
  • Indigenous STEAM Program: Supporting Indigenous resurgence through (re)making relations w/lands, waters, & each other toward equitable futures.
  • Learning in Places, Washington Bothelll Goodlad Institute, led by Megan Bang: We co-design innovative research and practice with educators, families, and community partners that cultivates equitable, culturally based, socio-ecological systems learning and sustainable decision-making utilizing “field based” science education in outdoor places, including gardens, for children in Kindergarten to 3rd grade and their families.
  • Center for Diverse Leadership in Science, UCLA, led by Aradhna Tripati. 

Further reading

Cajete, G. (2000). Native science: Natural laws of interdependence. Clear Light Pub.
Coulthard, G. S. (2014). Red skin, white masks: Rejecting the colonial politics of recognition. Minnesota Press.O’Brien, M. H. (1993). Being a scientist means taking sidesBioScience43(10), 706-708.
Haraway, D. (1988). Situated knowledges: The science question in feminism and the privilege of partial perspectiveFeminist studies14(3), 575-599.
Wilson, S. (2008). Research is ceremony: Indigenous research methodsFernwood Publishing.
Liboiron, M. (2016). On Solidarity and Molecules (#MakeMuskratRight)Discard Studies. Tuck, E., & Yang, K. W. (2012). Decolonization is not a metaphorDecolonization: Indigeneity, education & society1(1).
Tuck, E. (2009). Suspending damage: A letter to communitiesHarvard Educational Review79(3), 409-428.