The Symptoms of Colonization in Science

Editorial by Dr Dyhia Belhabib

“The scientist is a man who wears a white coat and works in a laboratory. He is elderly or middle aged and wears glasses… He may wear a beard… he is surrounded by equipment: test tubes, Bunsen burners, flasks and bottles, a jungle gym of blown glass tubes and weird machines with dials… He writes neatly in black notebooks… One day he may straighten up and shout: “I’ve found it! I’ve found it”… Through his work people will have new and better products… he has to keep dangerous secrets… his work may be dangerous….”.


This is not the description of Dr. Luther Swan, a scientist in the series V wars, interpreted by Ian Somerhalder as recently as in 2019, but the average portrait of scientists drawn by American high school students (Mead and Metraux, 1957). Not much later, in 1983, “facial growth of hair” was used as one of the indicators to assess how students perceived the image of a scientist in the study by Chambers (1983).  Not surprisingly, of over 5000 drawings, only 28 described female scientists, all drawn by girls, likely rebellious minds at the time, who believed that science should not be reserved to one gender.

Decades later, in 2018, studies still suggest that women in biology worked harder but were less likely to be granted authorships for papers they worked on or hold prestigious positions in said research (Rubin and O’Connor, 2018). This also translates into salary gaps. Female professors across Canada are paid significantly less than their male peers, a study by Statistics Canada found in 2020. A study by Ceci and Williams argues against the existence of gender discrimination against women in math-intensive fields, claiming that the lower numbers of full female professors in the field were caused by sex differences in resources, abilities, and choices (Ceci and Williams, 2011). The authors preposterously go as far as to argue that women are just like men when “(given comparable resources).” But here's the scoop: They are not given comparable resources, to begin with. The discrimination begins with societal expectations that often fall as a burden on women. At least here I agree with Ceci and Williams, who, by misunderstanding the meaning of discrimination, noted that  “women tend to occupy positions offering fewer resources… due primarily to factors surrounding family formation and childrearing, gendered expectations, lifestyle choices, and career preferences—some originating before or during adolescence” where females choose, adding that the notion of choice can be constrained. This short-sighted definition of choice leads me to think of my own experience. Society wanted me to marry at the age of 18 to a banker and become either a medical doctor (and I am afraid at the sight of blood), a pharmacist, or a housewife because I am a woman. Isn’t this what discrimination is? Or does this mean that all those girls stranded in lives that limit their choices had an actual choice? 

A young version of me at 13 years old, awarded second place in the Middle School National Exams at the Province of Bouira by the Premiere of the Province (on the right). I was already engaged at that time.

Gender is only one of the diversity dimensions that transpire when talking about inequality in science, and by extrapolation, in many topics informed by science, such as conservation. While there is a paradox between appreciating human diversity and rejecting stereotypical approaches (Lee, Y.T., 2021), which are said to often translate into judgmental and discriminating practices of othering different people, it remains that science has, and for long, somehow solved this paradox, ironically, by introducing a set of discriminatory norms that govern the processes that facilitate scientific research such as funding, research networks, and publications. Indeed, “minority status alone can make it more likely for a social group to be disadvantaged by bargaining norms”(Rubin and O’Connor, 2018, p. 2), and even when research networks form, they tend to be segregated and exclusive to members of the same group, minority or otherwise. 

There are different ways science and conservation can be discriminatory. In this issue, Samari explores professional discrimination, gender discrimination, and ageism when the generational divide and processes governed by outdated methods for the younger generation exclude the latter from communicating science properly, especially when these groups are part of minorities with low access to technology, or other sets of required skills such as mainstream languages of science (English). Blaha, alongside colleagues Gonelevu and Katafono, starts his story on colonized practices in conservation by putting his linguistic vulnerability forwards as he speaks about how white people were dominating the consulting realm in ocean conservation, despite their lack of local knowledge, affinities, and social networks. Local expertise was hence forced to marginalize itself. The theme of parachuted conservation scientists is made even more obvious by Arju’s experiences taught from a former British colony, where elite academic institutions from the global North perpetuated a disguised collaborative model meant at securing funding for non-collaborative or colonized research agendas by said institutions. The need to decolonize conservation for better and more meaningful outcomes has been discussed by Villagomez, an Indigenous Chomorro conservation leader from the Mariana Islands in Micronesia, as he depicted how experiences by indigenous peoples who “understand the fragility of the balance of nature, as most of us consider ourselves kin to nature.” and who have experienced, and even caused major species collapses could bring in much more insight into science and conservation if included. Whether talking about Indiana Jones type scientists’ provoking a mass exodus of specimens collected from the Global South and heading to museums in the so-called Global North, shaping taxonomy, such as described by Regalado Fernandez, a Mexican paleontologist, or the lack of the ability of minorities to identify with the average white male scientist and fighting through to become a prominent Stanford scholar (Johri), science remains white. This issue of Poplar and Ivy brings in a few examples of how this whiteness brings about colonized notions today in conservation amongst other fields of science. This issue begs the question of whether it is the role of minorities to educate and force themselves into this unfortunate discriminatory realm or is it that those of us who have been fortunate to pave the way, as so beautifully put forth by Kenneth Katafono, “have a duty to encourage and usher in the next generation”. An example of such work, and how possible it is, is brought by Galappaththi, Ghorpade, and Hill, who describe learning from a student-led initiative meant to decolonize science and conservation from the University of Waterloo (Ontario), students who “see Respectful Research as a counterpoint to the conventional mode of research, and one that breaks away from its extractive nature.”   

The stories from this first issue of Poplar & Ivy don’t shy away from pointing at colonization practices in science and conservation and how the lack of inclusion has shaped poor-decision making in conservation. While these experiences vary, there are some standard pointers to how colonial practices and lack of inclusion in science manifest themselves in ways that can mask but still yield discrimination. When these practices exist, they often provide a recipe for failure, whether in achieving the set objectives of conservation or simply engaging with the stakeholders during the process. The stories notably depict gender discrimination, ageism and generational divides, ethnic and racial discrimination, language discrimination, historical marginalization, and neocolonialism by excluding indigenous stakeholders. 

Being aware of one’s own biases is a significant step towards understanding how we can address discriminatory practices (Maxfield et al., 2020). Reading these stories by prominent scholars, students, advocates, and professionals from various backgrounds, will hopefully inform such bias, and by extension, the lack of inclusion in science and other colonial practices. 

How to cite this page:

Belhabib, D. (2021). The Symptoms of Colonization in Science. [online] Shackletontrust.org. Available at: https://www.shackletontrust.org/the-symptoms-of-colonization-in-science. https://doi.org/10.54823/qsbv93vz


  1. Ceci, S. and Williams, W., 2011. Understanding current causes of women's underrepresentation in science. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 108(8), pp.3157-3162.

  2. Chambers, D., 1983. Stereotypic images of the scientist: The draw-a-scientist test. Science Education, 67(2), pp.255-265.

  3. Lee, Y.T., 2021. Social psychology of stereotyping and human difference appreciation. Diversity management : theoretical perspectives and practical approaches. New York : Nova Science Publishers, pp.33-46

  4. Maxfield, C., Thorpe, M., Desser, T., Heitkamp, D., Hull, N., Johnson, K., Koontz, N., Mlady, G., Welch, T. and Grimm, L., 2020. Awareness of implicit bias mitigates discrimination in radiology resident selection. Medical Education, 54(7), pp.637-642.

  5. Mead, M. and Metraux, R., 1957. Image of the Scientist among High-School Students: A Pilot Study. Science, 126(3270), pp.384-390.

  6. Rubin, H. and O’Connor, C., 2018. Discrimination and Collaboration in Science. Philosophy of Science, 85(3), pp.380-402.