More alarmingly, the phrase also runs the risk of being used by religious fundamentalists and cynical politicians in their arguments against established scientific theories such as climate change. This is a time when the integrity of experts is under fire and science is the target of political manouevring. So polemically rejecting the subject altogether only plays into the hands of those who have no interest in decolonisation.

Alongside its imperial history, science has also inspired many people in the former colonial world to demonstrate remarkable courage, critical thinking, and dissent in the face of established beliefs and conservative traditions. These include the iconic Indian anti-caste activist Rohith Vemula and the murdered atheist authors Narendra Dabholkar and Avijit Roy. Demanding that “science must fall” fails to do justice to this legacy.

The call to decolonise science, as in the case of other disciplines such as literature, can encourage us to rethink the dominant image that scientific knowledge is the work of white men. But this much-needed critique of the scientific canon carries the other danger of inspiring alternative national narratives in post-colonial countries.

A March for Science protester in Melbourne.
A March for Science protester in Melbourne.
Image: Takver/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 2.0

For example, some Indian nationalists, including the country’s current prime minister, Narendra Modi, have emphasised the scientific glories of an ancient Hindu civilisation. They argue that plastic surgery, genetic science, aeroplanes, and stem cell technology were in vogue in India thousands of years ago. These claims are not just a problem because they are factually inaccurate. Misusing science to stoke a sense of nationalist pride can easily feed into jingoism.

Meanwhile, various forms of modern science and their potential benefits have been rejected as unpatriotic. In 2016, a senior Indian government official even went so far as to claim that “doctors prescribing non-Ayurvedic medicines are anti-national.”

The path to decolonisation

Attempts to decolonise science need to contest jingoistic claims of cultural superiority, whether they come from European imperial ideologues or the current representatives of post-colonial governments. This is where new trends in the history of science can be helpful.

For example, instead of the parochial understanding of science as the work of lone geniuses, we could insist on a more cosmopolitan model. This would recognise how different networks of people have often worked together in scientific projects and the cultural exchanges that helped them—even if those exchanges were unequal and exploitative.

But if scientists and historians are serious about “decolonising science” in this way, they need to do much more to present the culturally diverse and global origins of science to a wider, non-specialist audience. For example, we need to make sure this decolonised story of the development of science makes its way into schools.

Students should also be taught how empires affected the development of science and how scientific knowledge was reinforced, used and sometimes resisted by colonised people. We should encourage budding scientists to question whether science has done enough to dispel modern prejudices based on concepts of race, gender, class, and nationality.

Schools need to teach the non-Western history of science.
Schools need to teach the non-Western history of science.
Image: Wikimedia Commons/Public domain

Decolonising science will also involve encouraging Western institutions that hold imperial scientific collections to reflect more on the violent political contexts of war and colonisation in which these items were acquired. An obvious step forward would be to discuss repatriating scientific specimens to former colonies, as botanists working on plants originally from Angola but held primarily in Europe have done. If repatriation isn’t possible, then co-ownership or priority access for academics from post-colonial countries should at least be considered.

This is also an opportunity for the broader scientific community to critically reflect on its own profession. Doing so will inspire scientists to think more about the political contexts that have kept their work going and about how changing them could benefit the scientific profession around the world. It should spark conversations between the sciences and other disciplines about their shared colonial past and how to address the issues it creates.

Unravelling the legacies of colonial science will take time. But the field needs strengthening at a time when some of the most influential countries in the world have adopted a lukewarm attitude towards scientific values and findings. Decolonisation promises to make science more appealing by integrating its findings more firmly with questions of justice, ethics and democracy. Perhaps, in the coming century, success with the microscope will depend on success in tackling the lingering effects of imperialism.

Rohan Deb Roy, lecturer in South Asian History, University of Reading. This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article. We welcome your comments at

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