Portrait of Madhusudan Katti in Raleigh Lake.

Madhusudan Katti says ecology would benefit from including perspectives from all of Earth’s inhabitants.Credit: Marc Hall

Decolonizing science

Science is steeped in injustice and exploitation. Scientific insights from marginalized people have been erased, natural history specimens have been taken without consent and genetics data have been manipulated to back eugenics movements. Without acknowledgement and redress of this legacy, many people from minority ethnic groups have little trust in science and certainly don’t feel welcome in academia — an ongoing barrier to the levels of diversity that many universities claim to pursue.

In the next of a short series of articles about decolonizing the biosciences, Madhusudan Katti suggests five shifts that ecologists need to make to unravel the effects of colonization on their field. Katti, an evolutionary ecologist at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, would also like to see stronger inclusion of uncredentialed experts and Indigenous communities in research.

Last year, my colleagues and I wrote a paper highlighting five shifts that would help to decolonize ecology (C. H. Trisos et al. Nature Ecol. Evol. 5, 1205–1212; 2021). Ecologists need to improve how they incorporate varied perspectives, approaches and interpretations from the diverse peoples inhabiting Earth’s natural environments. The five shifts are: the individual need to decolonize one’s mind; understand the history of colonization and how it shaped Western ecology; facilitate access to and dissemination of data; recognize diverse scientific expertise; and establish inclusive research groups. Although it can be difficult to make reforms given how resistant institutions are to change, we are optimistic because we have received invitations to speak on these issues. People are ready for these conversations.

My colleagues and I developed a workshop around the five shifts. We have conducted the workshop at my institution, and at the annual conference of the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology. For each of the shifts, I have participants brainstorm and write down challenges and solutions that might lead to progress in these areas for their own research departments or institutions. We address them, shuffle groups and suggest policy changes and future action.

Some organizations are already moving forward with some low-hanging fruit, such as making data and published results more accessible. However, open-access publishing models put an even greater burden of publication costs on authors and perpetuate inequalities, because early-career researchers and those in the global south often can’t afford them.

The most contentious area tends to be the reluctance of academia to accept non-credentialed expertise such as traditional knowledge. Universities are in the business of giving out credentials in the form of degrees. If academia no longer requires a PhD, that can be a challenge to that model. There are also few, if any, incentives or rewards to spend time working towards decolonizing academia, even though it takes time and effort away from furthering individual careers.

As an Indian American, I would like to see institutions expand antiracism conversations rather than introduce new checklists of things to do. For example, at annual meetings, it would be great to see scientific societies make more connections with the Indigenous communities where we work and invite them to share their perspectives.