Decolonizing our educational/institutional influences – Towards open science funding and mental decolonization
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Decolonizing our educational/institutional influences – Towards open science funding and mental decolonization

by Kersti Ruth Wissenbach

On June 23, 2022, GIG hosted the third out of five hangouts addressing pressing issues to enable inclusive, bottom-up Citizen Social Science practices in the most diverse contexts. The topics have been identified throughout a series of conversation formats with makers, citizen [social] scientists and activists from around the world. As we are heading towards a co-created publication aiming to capture the critical understanding of inclusive Citizen Social Science from a gloCal perspective, these hangouts also provide a space for questions and discussion around one of the topics each month.

This time we discussed how to decolonize our educational/institutional influences with an inspiring group of participants from Kenya, Ghana, Germany, and Spain. We wanted to unpack the question how western and non-western scientists can liberate ourselves from western institutional ‘instructions’.

We departed from acknowledging the existing power divide between those having platforms to provide capacities and those lacking such access. Scholars and practitioners training or being trained abroad find themselves aware of these dynamics and more likely know how to navigate them.

One can say that this makes it a personal matter how one has their local ecosystem in their home country benefit. Despite this, however, some systems and respective power dynamics will always be with us and so will there always be people with advantaged backgrounds who will build their capacities in western contexts whilst, simultaneously, the system intrinsically carries a level of barriers for people to move forward in peripheral environments.

Perhaps we expect from people who try to develop capacities in the western educational system to be responsible and identify this bias by understanding through which potential privilege they enter into this environment. Once understanding this, they can understand the first instance of bias and can question how we can overcome such systemic power dynamics from its roots.

Being self-reflective can therefore be considered the first step to decolonize our influences.

But self-reflection is by no means an automated deliberation from our own practices as we are mostly all bound, if not tied, to structural frameworks that are beyond our control. Researchers training abroad are usually bound to funding schemes that ties them into that system. Those same ties often apply ones researchers return to their home countries in African contexts. As elsewhere, funding mostly comes from the same sources, following the same agendas.

So the question we asked ourselves was how to be a responsible individual within these dynamics.

Rather than concentrating in opportunities abroad some opportunities can be channeled by developing home grown systems. Localizing opportunities enables us to begin seeing problems from a local point of view. If decision-making rests in local contexts, it is more likely to act, aka to research, in local interests.

Redirecting the focus of collaboration to a ´from local to local´ level can thus be seen as the second step we can take to foster decolonization in our practices. However, funding has to come from somewhere and gaining experiences abroad, in which direction ever, is still to be considered a valuable experience.

And of course this all is easier said than done. As was emphasized during our conversation, Africa does generally lack a sufficient number of scientists and that creates the main gap. This brings us back to a critical discussion we had in our last hangout, addressing the ownership of science, in which we discussed the need to diversify the understanding and subsequent practices of science. For instance Africa holds a massive and diverse critical mass of scientists if we acknowledge the plenty traditional ways of doing things. The gap of documentation thereof, however, creates the massive gap to date.

This leaves us with the need to foster other documentation infrastructures and practices than those of western mainstream academic journals and databases, including the diversification of language. Needless to say, that infrastructure alone will not solve the challenge but needs to come with a massive shift in how scientific excellence is measured to date.

Getting back to the challenge to secure funding schemes that adhere to local contexts and are agile to adapt to actual local needs, research traditions, etc.. Our conversation pointed out that even if, the sustainability of research projects is mostly also limited to European projects, given the very time bound funding scheme situation that results in most efforts dying after funding dries out, mostly not witnessing any follow-ups.

This is a structural problem which, however, can also be linked back to the general lack of local integration. Where projects are not rooted in, or come from communities, who would benefit from the research results and who would care about building on them in real life, independent from academic publication tick boxes, motivation for take-up remains minimal. As long as research findings are locked up in library shelves, local communities, potentially being researched without being engaged in the research design, will not have access to the results, nor will they be of relevance by default.

A first thought that would come to mind is to enable local communities to address research institutes with their needs, in order for locally held challenges to be brought to the awareness and take-up of academic researchers. Actively engaging communities in research design and execution seems the logical step. But most funding systems are not yet prepared for diversification like such an approach to multidisciplinarity.

How to diversify funding in a way that it can be equally accessible by local actors, academics and non-academics, as well as to locally driven, however, multidisciplinary teams, is therefore a central question. Participants did report the obstacles to access certain institutions and funding schemes without certain institutional degrees. In African contexts, western university degrees, no matter the quality of the institution, still mostly rank higher than outstanding degrees from local universities.

One constructive approach to this is to foster an Open Science funding framework. In an open science framework researchers and practitioners do not depend on an institutional system governed by university grades and foreign funding. Enabling an Open Science framework still, and also, requires mental decolonization as we need people to trust in local institutions rather than having to study abroad.

To be sure, going abroad still beers rich opportunities. The challenge is rather that people who get trained abroad and do lack opportunities in their home countries are likely to seek a career abroad.

So, what does that leave us with?

As the problem we are facing is generated on a systemic level as well as determined by individual challenges, we need structural trans-border pathways to knowledge creation, distribution, and uptake – including trans-border, multi-directional and cross-disciplinary economic flows.

This would require some parallel steps, such as:

  • Sensitizing researchers and institutions from all sides on the centrality of solving challenges locally;
  • Sensitizing policy makers and African public sector institutions that prioritizing foreign degrees results in a lack of sensitization for local problems, thus locally relevant and embedded research;
  • Diversifying collaboration by enabling respective funding schemes
  • Enablling south-north and south-south collaborations
  • Advocating for and build supportive alternative infrastructures, such as repositories