Is science in the developing world colonised?

Decolonising Science
Copyright: Luisa Massarani

Speed read

  • Science cannot simply be translated from English
  • Colonisation relates to science policy rather than science itself
  • Science is often done from the perspective of the global North

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[SAN FRANCISCO] When choosing the sessions I want to attend at a conference, I tend to favour those that offer a fresh point of view on an issue and bring in perspectives from different parts of the world.

Decolonising Science, a session at the 10th World Conference of Science Journalists held this month (October 26-30) in the US city of San Francisco, sounded like that kind of session — and I was right.

Mandi Smallhorne, president of the African Federation of Science Journalists and the South African Science Journalists Association, told me that in proposing the session, her starting point was that journalists are not really aware of the fact that science reporting is often done from the perspective of the global North.

“I wanted to provoke some questions about how we see science and how science interacts with people who science is done for, and the people who are the subject of science,” she said.

As an example, she refers to the many clinical trials that take place in the global South on people who do not necessarily understand what they are for.

“We need to ask questions about the impact of science in society across the world,” said Smallhorne.

The South African science journalist Sibusiso Biyela, a digital science communicator at ScienceLink and a volunteer for SciBraai, shared a practical barrier he encountered when writing science stories in Zulu.

Biyela said a science story cannot be simply translated from English to Zulu — it needs to be fully adapted.

He gave the example of astronomy, where there aren’t enough specific names for space bodies such as planets.
TV Padma, a freelance science journalist from India, highlighted as part of the panel the need for a science journalist in the developing world to not focus on peer-reviewed journal papers only. She gave the example of grassroots innovations that have not been submitted to academic journals, but which are also important.

Javier Cruz, a science journalist from the National Autonomous University of Mexico, asked in the panel if the issue was “really about colonised science”.

It is not science that is colonised, said Cruz, but the policies of many developing countries.

“It is our governments that define the priority scientific areas to be supported, in many cases excluding some areas that could be more relevant locally,” he explained, adding that decisions are often taken without enough scientific evidence to back them up.

I am glad that the purpose of the session was not to reach a consensus — that would not have been possible. But the main goal of asking provocative questions was definitely achieved.