By: Becky Hillyer

See the original Medium article here.

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A recent Youtube video captures a student from the University of Cape Town (UCT) declaring that “science is a product of western modernity” and that “the whole thing should be scratched off.” She goes on to suggest examples of how commonly understood and accepted scientific principles — such as the law of gravity — have reinforced particular Western ways of knowing. Within the video, the young woman is laughed at and subject to verbal criticism from members of the audience. Posted on October 13th, the video received almost 900,000 views within just one week. The comments are almost exclusively negative. Many are overtly racist.

The video comes as a result of student forums and consultations within the #FeesMustFall movement, which has triggered the mobilisation of students across South Africa. The movement is a result of student frustrations over ever-increasing tuition fees, as well as the slow rate of transformation within most of South Africa’s higher-learning institutions. Last year, student protesters were able to achieve a 0% fee increase for the 2016 academic year. This year, demands have intensified, with protestors calling for immediate, free and high-quality university education.

While the student’s views were articulated in an extreme way, the intention of her message should not be dismissed. The Open and Collaborative Science in Development Network (OCSDNet) has focused our work on examining the way that scientific knowledge is created, circulated and legitimised within a global context. While critical reflections on power and privilege are often common practices within academic fields such as the social sciences and humanities, they tend to be less commonly practiced in the natural sciences.

Thus, there is a need to critically reflect on the underlying premise of the #ScienceMustFall debate. OCSDNet is supportive of the need to decolonise scientific knowledge within African universities and learning institutions around the world. Decolonisation does not mean “scratching off” science as an entirety. Instead, it would involve a critical reflection on the way that colonial and apartheid histories have shaped institutional norms and structures, and developing ways of teaching and communicating that are reflective of where, how and by whom particular forms of scientific knowledge are created. It would further involve the design of institutional environments and pedagogies that are open and inviting of alternative scientific actors, traditions and perspectives.

All in all, there is the need to move beyond the mantra of “ScienceMustFall” towards a science that is inclusive of diverse realities, voices and actors: #ScienceMustOpen.

Deconstructing Hierarchies of Scientific Knowledge

Knowledge that is universal in its application should theoretically travel and spread, by its very nature. When theories and ideas are resilient in multiple contexts, they have the potential to explain the realities experienced by others, in different contexts. However, when we add a power analysis to the way that knowledge spreads, we see that this does not necessarily happen in a free and equitable way. Particular modes of knowledge production tend to privilege and prioritise the voices of some dominant actors.

For example, the map below shows the global output of published, academic journal articles, with countries weighted to show their article output, as a percentage of the number of authors living there. When we look solely at publication numbers, we see that the US, Japan and Western Europe dominate the field of scholarly knowledge. In contrast, the entire continent of Africa (and many Southern countries) become almost invisible, in terms of their contributions towards published research.

Figure 1: World Scaled by number of documents in Web of Science by Authors Living There. (2011).
Produced by Juan Pablo Alperin.

Does that mean that Africans and African institutions do not have and produce knowledge? Absolutely not. It likely suggests that African institutions are unable to pay exorbitant subscription fees to access existing journals, and are therefore unable to build upon existing research to meet the publication standards of these same journals. This imbalance could also be due to a lack of access to ICTs, scientific equipment and well-resourced libraries; or the dominance of english-language journal requirements. On the other hand, it may simply indicate that African scholars are less focused on academic competitiveness and more focused on modes of research communication that are better positioned for addressing local challenges.

Nonetheless, this is an important global phenomena because the number of publications, citations and journal ‘reputation’ are all used as institutional indicators to calculate university rankings; such as the ever-popular Times World University Ranking. In turn, students, employers and research funding-bodies consult these rankings to make decisions about where to invest their time and resources. Thus, the business of publishing in closed, competitive journals is a self-replicating system that perpetuates the dominance of North American and European institutions and scholarship, leaving African universities to play an impossible game of ‘catch-up’ at the expense of fee-paying students and overburdened staff.

Indeed, we see similar levels of geographical knowledge bias within supposedly ‘open’ research and knowledge tools such as Wikipedia. For instance, in a geographical mapping of locationally-based Wikipedia articles, Straumann and Graham (2012) found that more articles were produced within Western Europe than the rest of the world combined. When these diagrams are compared alongside Internet broadband access maps, we see that African countries are often expected to pay the most for internet access, despite having some of the lowest levels of GDP per capita. These systems, once again, are excluding the majority of Africans from contributing towards (what are perceived to be) mainstream and accessible knowledge-production forums. This structural exclusion leads to the invisibility of important, locally relevant knowledge, while silently reinforcing the dominance of Anglo-European realities and authorship.

As the examples above hope to convey, it is easy for researchers to become imbued with a false sense of knowledge hierarchy. Indeed, western scientific discourse has been solidifying itself as the golden standard for centuries. However, this ‘standard’ is largely based on and shaped by models of knowledge production, access, use and dissemination that are exclusive in nature, often created by and for white, patriarchal actors.

As an example, let’s briefly consider a tool that we all know and use: Google Maps. In a recent LSE blog, Miriam Posner writes:

“[Google Maps] technology enshrines a Cartesian model of space that derives directly from a colonialist project of empire-building. This business of flattening and distorting space so that it can be graphed with latitude and longitude? That makes sense when you’re assembling an empire — which is why the Mercator projection emerged in Western Europe in the 16th century.”

She continues, by asking:

“What models of space — what possible futures — are we foreclosing by leaning so heavily on this one representation? What would the world look like if we viewed it on a different kind of map, like, for instance, these maps, produced by Aboriginal communities in Australia?”


Posner’s example uncovers a dominant assumption about how we understand and visualise physical space. While I am by no means attempting to undermine the utility and importance of modern-day maps and mapping software, it is nonetheless important to recognise how seemingly neutral scientific tools have, throughout history, been used in exploitative ways. Moreover, by limiting our understanding of space to the dimension of basic measurability, we are ignoring opportunities to interpret and engage with our physical environments in alternative ways.

As a further example, I can draw upon my own experiences as a student completing a Masters degree in Urban and Regional Planning at Stellenbosch University. Within this program, I learned that the science of planning South African cities should seemingly replicate North American and European urban models and norms. I learned about theories and practices of planning generated in the west, by white men, during the early twentieth century. I learned very little about how these theories apply to South African cities, nor did I learn about what lessons could be adapted from other Southern cities. Brazil, for example, has a similar level of economic growth, racialized population and high levels of inequality, but yet we learned nothing of Brazil’s highly democratic, citizen-focused planning policies.

Through an examination of this program alone, South African urban science and planning students are encouraged to ‘bring Europe to Africa’ instead of developing locally-relevant, Afro-centric planning solutions, or drawing on lessons learnt by other Southern cities. Again, I am not saying that it is irrelevant to learn and understand western models. I am saying that it is harmful, inefficient and unsustainable to teach in a way that discourages critical thinking and contextual relevance around the suitability of such models.

Examples of ‘imported’ scientific models abound in the development literature. In the mid-twentieth century, Southern countries were encouraged to follow the Western example of transitioning their rural-agrarian economies towards the uptake of the industrial ‘Green Revolution’ in the name of science, development and economic progress. In most cases, this transition resulted in diminished food security and sovereignty, massive trade fluctuations, the economic displacement of poor, small-scale farmers and the disruption of local farming support networks. Today, many recognise that the Green Economy contributes heavily towards pollution, climate change, increased inequality and unemployment (For example, see: Conway & Barbier, 2009; Freebairn, 1995). At the same time, Southern leaders have begun to push back against the industrialisation of agriculture. Activist-researchers such as Vandana Shiva are promoting the importance of local agricultural knowledge, including the use of traditional practices such as seed-saving for increased food security, sustainability and resilience against climate change.

Indeed, the engagement of Southern researchers within scientific debates has begun to shift and contest meanings of “science” itself. For instance, in the case of OCSDNet, a South African project led by the Natural Justice team in Cape Town, is examining the ways that indigenous Khoi-San communities experience climate change, and the adaptation knowledge that already exists within these communities. In Argentina, researchers are assessing trends such as “cognitive exploitation,” whereby socially beneficial research agendas become re-appropriated by powerful actors for private gain. Across French-speaking West Africa, Projet SOHA is engaging with student leaders to ignite discussions around the decolonisation of science, knowledge and research within West African universities, while exploring what an open and inclusive science could look like within their respective contexts.

But these are not the stories and critiques we tend to hear in South Africa’s lecture halls. Now, SA students are beginning to become cognisant of these gaps in their educational experiences.

Opening Science to Greater Inclusion

#ScienceMustFall is an expression of frustration. Science is neither meeting the needs nor expressing the realities of people equally. Nonetheless, the fight should not be situated in the context of “starting over again.” Rather, there is a need to critically examine institutional structures, forms of pedagogy and curriculum content to allow for a diversity of voices to be represented in scientific agendas. By opening up science to be more inclusive of diverse worldviews, we are contributing to a much richer (and indeed more accurate) variety of science.

For OCSDNet, decolonizing science means recognising all people’s full humanity — their wisdom and capacity to produce forms of knowledge that include potentially powerful interpretations and explanatory accounts of the world.

These are not new ideas. Scholars such as bell hooks, Dr. George Dei and countless others have produced an abundance of written work about critical, anti-racist education. In the 1980’s and 90’s, Faye Harrison’s work on “Decolonizing Anthropology,” opened up discussions on the enduring legacies of colonial power structures, political economies and knowledge systems within ex-colonies. Linda Tuhiwai Smith’s book on ‘Decolonizing Methodologies’ speaks to the need to understand and include indigenous research agendas and methodologies into our conceptualisations of research — including how to make research fairer, more inclusive and less exploitative.

Unfortunately, the reactions to the UCT video demonstrate that many fail to acknowledge the underlying intention of the #ScienceMustFall debate. There is a need to re-imagine the conversation (and science in general) towards the perspective of #ScienceMustOpen. We need to move beyond a narrow definition of what is considered “science,” towards a broader understanding that is inclusive of diverse voices and forms of knowledge. We need to consider the power structures that exist within knowledge-production processes, and whose voices have been excluded from creating knowledge and information that we deem to be “true.”