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Science and decolonization: Keeping the debate on track

First Nations are well placed to challenge an exclusionary politics that withholds scientific power from the majority

Indigenous PoliticsEducationScience and Technology

Lubicon Lake Band’s Piitapan Solar Project, Little Buffalo, Alberta. Photo courtesy Concordia University.

Recently, a well-known conservative pundit, Rex Murphy, ridiculed a federally funded project at Concordia University that bears the name Decolonizing Light. “What could that mean?” wonders Murphy. “How could a person decolonize penicillin? Or anaesthesia? Or open-heart surgery?” These are all fair, and even fun, questions, as far as they go.

The full name of the Concordia project is Decolonizing Light – Tracing and Countering Colonialism in Contemporary Physics. In 2018, it was awarded $163,567 by Ottawa’s Exploration Competition grant program, which supports high-risk, high-reward projects that “explore something new that might fail.”

As the Concordia project’s full name makes clear, the focus of their research is not on light, as such, but on the science of light, or, still more specifically, on the community of physicists who study light. The word ‘light’ in Decolonizing Light is just a short and snappy way of referring to this expert community, in the same way that “Ottawa” can be a short and snappy way of referring to the politicians and public servants who govern Canada. In the description given on Ottawa’s funding website, the Concordia researchers promise to focus on “the professional culture of physics, the decolonization of which is aspired [to] in the proposed project.”

Murphy of course knows that, in this context, ‘light’ does not literally mean “light.” When he insists that the “only reverence science knows is the genuflection before hard, physical reality,” he is really referring to scientists. Science no more “bows” to reality than the market “drives” inflation. The real, physical actors in each case are scientists and market traders, not the abstractions of science and market. As Murphy rightly observes, science deals with “what is really seen, what is really there.”

Murphy knows what ‘light’ means in this context. But does he want his readers to know, too? It is a hard, physical reality that Indigenous people in North America are, in proportion to their number, dramatically underrepresented in the so-called STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, medicine). In a 2014 book, Who’s Asking? Native Science, Western Science, and Science Education, scientists Douglas Medin and Megan Bang estimate that the number of Indigenous people in the US with science and engineering college degrees would need at least to triple—perhaps even to quadruple or quintuple—in order to become proportionate with the number of such degrees held by non-Indigenous people.

I think Murphy is probably right that science is “the very closest attempt in all of history to remove all prejudice, of any kind, from the attempt to answer any question.” But one might still question his apparent judgment that the Decolonizing Light project contradicts, rather than contributes, to this attempt. Sure, an abstraction like science has no skin colour, but scientists most certainly do. Murphy may be right that “the colour of the skin of a discoverer has no bearing on the discovery,” but the more pertinent issue is whether skin colour, statistically speaking, affects one’s chances of working in a STEM field. Based on recent data, the answer appears to be yes. Decolonizing Light might thus be seen as an example of science’s ongoing effort to self-correct in the interests of its own objectivity.

And, as Murphy is happy to recognize, scientific objectivity commands authority. The disproportionate lack of scientific expertise in Indigenous communities coincides with their disproportionate lack of power. No wonder band councils are often keen to nurture their own local scientific experts. They would rather manage their own resources than see them managed by outsiders unfamiliar with their customs and concerns.

The production of local scientific expertise as a path to increased sovereignty is already well underway in First Nations communities. For example, from 2001 to 2007, the Eskasoni First Nation collaborated with Cape Breton University (CBU) to deliver a curriculum that dramatically increased the number of Indigenous students taking CBU’s science courses. Thirteen of these students graduated from the signature “Integrative Science” degree program, and, in 2012, most of them held key service positions in their home communities.

In another example, after 4.5 million litres of crude oil had spilled on their land in 2011, the Lubicon Lake Band installed 80 solar panels in Little Buffalo, Alberta, in a bid to increase their energy independence. The Pîtâpan (“coming of the dawn”) Solar Project was co-led by Melina Laboucan-Massimo, a band member trained in environmental science. The project, says Chief Billy Joe Laboucan, makes band members leaders in solar energy: “That’s what we’re teaching our youth. They have to learn how to operate it, they have to learn how to maintain it, and they’ve already learned how to set it up.” The Lubicon are taking back control of their lives.

A 2019 book, Wisdom Engaged: Traditional Knowledge for Northern Community Health and Well-Being (read my review in Canadian Dimension here), likewise illustrates the many ways in which Indigenous groups, often together with non-Indigenous scientific partners, are reasserting power over their own health and well-being.

For their part, Concordia’s Decolonizing Light scientists collaborate with the Environmental Protection Office of the nearby Kahnawà:ke First Nation “to develop tools for community-led air quality management […] based on laser scattering.” Here, too, scientific expertise is being gathered by an Indigenous group seeking to expand its capacity for self-government.

Murphy ignores such developments, and instead bangs on about the threat allegedly being posed to the “autonomy” of science. But science is only as autonomous as the people who do it. As far as I know, Murphy has nothing against the efforts of Indigenous groups to take into their own hands the science that inevitably shapes their lives. He seems more concerned with what he calls “the woke notions of our over-politicized times,” notions he apparently views as an attempt by some university administrators to wrest authority from science’s traditional custodians in science and engineering faculties.

This, then, is a dispute over the distribution of power within the ruling intellectual class, a dispute that threatens to distract attention from the more egregious power imbalances plaguing those who live beyond the ivory tower. It would be a shame if the energy released in intellectual disputes over “decolonization” failed to reach, and so to fuel, the people whose lot that term was presumably meant to improve.

One can only hope that Concordia’s Decolonizing Light researchers will not allow themselves to be distracted by these superficial firecrackers. So far, it looks like they have kept their eye on the ball, and their cooperation with the Kahnawà:ke First Nation may still serve as an inspiration for other communities who are likewise keen to win back control over their own futures.

In this respect, First Nations—for both historical and juridical reasons—seem unusually well placed to challenge an exclusionary politics that withholds scientific power from the majority of those affected by it. The successes of these First Nations could lead to greater changes. Perhaps this is why the faux-partisan pundit classes seem so bent on distracting us with their interminable squabbling over how to divide the cake amongst themselves.

Jeff Kochan is a researcher at the Zukunftskolleg, University of Konstanz. He is the author of, among other works, the essay “Decolonising Science in Canada: A Work in Progress.”

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