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 do we better pressurize water so it can force more gas out from shale (aka fracking)?”); 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, mercenarily, in solidarity); even the types of measurements we use are political (those based in cost-benefit vs those based in justice). In short, creating knowledge is a political act where some values and interests are reproduced and others are not. We take this seriously, making 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.
O’Brien, M. H. (1993). Being a scientist means taking sides. BioScience, 43(10), 706-708.
Haraway, D. (1988). Situated knowledges: The science question in feminism and the privilege of partial perspective. Feminist studies, 14(3), 575-599.
Wilson, S. (2008). Research is ceremony: Indigenous research methods. Fernwood Publishing.
Liboiron, M. (2016). On Solidarity and Molecules (#MakeMuskratRight). Discard Studies.
We didn’t invent feminist science! For decades, researchers have noticed that the cultures and values in Western science are sexist. This means that women are often treated by a different standard than men in science, but also that the measurements, concepts, designs, and research questions in science consistently privilege male, heterosexual, and white perspectives and traits over others (Haraway 1998, Allen 2007, Wyer et al 2013, Subramaniam 2014 for starters). For example, sperm are scientifically described as active seekers of eggs, while eggs are theorized to be inert an passive receptors of sperm, mapping magically onto dominant gender roles, even–and especially–when empirical evidence supports different interpretations (Martin 1991). For the most part, this isn’t because scientists are assholes, but because knowledge is shaped by its dominant cultural context, which happens to be sexist and racist.
Feminist science studies (also called feminist STS) seeks to critique these politics in science, calling attention to them. Feminist science is related but different: it is made up of scientists seeking to do science otherwise— we seek to situate knowledge and its axiologies in justice and equity, for example. Feminist science isn’t about getting more women, people of colour, and Indigneous people into science–that would be inviting people into a space that is already stacked against them (see Liboiron & Molloy 2017). Instead, feminist science seeks to change how science is done so that different world views, values, and ethics are the basis for knowledge production, which also happens to make science a better place for women, people of colour, Indigneous peoples, queers, and people with disabilities.
CLEAR is not the only feminist lab out there; Sari van Ander’s Social Neuroendocrinology lab is one of our inspirations, for example. There are also other feminist scientists, many of whom move between science and social science to articulate their research, such as Deboleena Roy and Banu Subramaniam.
Our goal as a feminist scientist is to bring the insights of intersectional feminism into scientific practices. See our Lab Book for concrete ways that we do this, including our equity in author order protocol, and our process of community peer review.
Allen, C. (2007). It’s a Boy! Gender Expectations Intrude on the Study of Sex Determination. DNA and cell biology, 26(10), 699-705.
Martin, E. (1991). The egg and the sperm: How science has constructed a romance based on stereotypical male-female roles. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 16(3), 485-501.
Haraway, D. J. (1989). Primate visions: Gender, race, and nature in the world of modern science. Psychology Press.
Wyer, M., Barbercheck, M., Cookmeyer, D., Ozturk, H., & Wayne, M. (Eds.). (2013). Women, science, and technology: A reader in feminist science studies. Routledge.
Subramaniam, B. (2014). Ghost stories for Darwin: The science of variation and the politics of diversity. University of Illinois Press.
Liboiron, M., & Molloy, J. (2017). We need to break science out of the Ivory Tower. The Conversation. April 25.
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 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).
Anti-colonialism is in opposition to these systems, practices, and values. In science, being anti-colonial means 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 because we agree with Eve Tuck and Wayne Yang when they say that decolonization, as the undoing of colonialism, is strictly 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” (2012, 1).
We do anti-colonial work in our science by recognizing Indigneous place names in our science, observing traditional protocol such as leaving tobacco when we take animals from Land, paying elders for their expertise when they advise and teach us, and fighting to ensure our Indigneous students aren’t systematically discriminated against. Though we have Indigneous lab members, we do not seek to extract Indigneous knowledge to being it into Western science (that would be colonial!) though some members do use their traditional teachings in their research. Rather, we aim to identify and counter colonial values, concepts, and structures within science and the university through how we do science, such as through our guidelines for research with Indigneous peoples, a framework that understands pollution as a form of colonialism, and our dedication to humility in research (outlined in our Lab Book).
Coulthard, G. S. (2014). Red skin, white masks: Rejecting the colonial politics of recognition. Minnesota Press.
Tuck, E., & Yang, K. W. (2012). Decolonization is not a metaphor. Decolonization: Indigeneity, education & society, 1(1).
Tuck, E. (2009). Suspending damage: A letter to communities. Harvard Educational Review, 79(3), 409-428.