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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 three 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 worldwide. 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 of how western and non-western scientists can liberate themselves from western institutional ‘instructions’.

We departed from acknowledging the power divide between those with 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 to know how to navigate them.

One can say that this makes it a personal matter of how one has the local ecosystem in their home country benefit. Despite this, 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 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 they understand this, they can understand the first instance of bias and question how we can overcome such systemic power dynamics from its roots.

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

But self-reflection is by no means an automated deliberation from our practices as we are mostly all bound, if not tied, to structural frameworks beyond our control. Researchers training abroad are usually bound to funding schemes that link them to that system. Those ties often apply once researchers return to their home countries in African contexts. As elsewhere, funding mainly 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 on opportunities abroad, some opportunities can be channelled by developing homegrown 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 regional 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 whatever direction, is still considered a valuable experience.

And, of course, this all is easier said than done. As was emphasized during our conversation, Africa generally lacks a sufficient number of scientists, which creates a central gap. This brings us back to a critical discussion we had in our last hangout, addressing the ownership of science. 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 many traditional ways of doing things. The documentation gap, however, creates a massive gap to date.

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

Getting back to the challenge of securing 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 time-bound funding scheme situation that results in most efforts dying after funding dries out, primarily 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 would care about building on them in real life, independent of academic publication tick boxes, motivation for take-up remains minimal. As long as research findings are locked up on 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 relevant by default.

A first thought that would come to mind is to enable local communities to address research institutes with their needs for locally held challenges to be brought to the awareness and take-up of academic researchers. Actively engaging communities in research design and execution seem 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 reported obstacles to accessing certain institutions and funding schemes without certain institutional degrees. In African contexts, western university degrees, no matter the institution's quality, 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 also requires mental decolonization, as we need people to trust local institutions rather than having to study abroad.

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

So, what does that leave us with?

As the problem we face is generated on a systemic level and 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 prioritise foreign degrees results in a lack of sensitization for local problems, thus locally relevant and embedded research;
  • Diversifying collaboration by enabling respective funding schemes
  • Enabling south-north and south-south collaborations
  • Advocating for and building supportive alternative infrastructures, such as repositories