I began writing this blog in the sterile, spacious, marble-floored San Jose, CA Convention Center, where I attended the largest ever annual meeting of the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS)(close to 4,000 registrants), held October 27-30, 2011. An overworked assistant professor, I am just now getting around to finishing this post. SACNAS focuses on preparing students for research careers in the biophysical sciences and mathematics. Indeed, in addition to 1000 poster and speaker presentations and 38 multidisciplinary science symposia, there were 58 professional development sessions at this year’s meeting. Like other scientific meetings, SACNAS features presentations of scientific papers and posters, plenary sessions, networking luncheons, receptions, big name keynote speakers, and a huge exhibit hall where universities and other research institutions and agencies recruit graduate students and employees (over 300 exhibitors this year). It also features big time technology, which is noticeably absent at the social sciences and humanities meetings I attend.

Fundamental Differences: Scientists Situating Themselves and Mentoring

But SACNAS is also different. Atypical of scientific meetings in the U.S., this one is heavily populated by brown people. And many of them talk about bringing science together with culture. I heard little of that common ideology that “science”—or the systematic, empirical investigation of the natural/material world—happens ideally with humans and their cultures abstracted from the process. Histories of exclusion from scientific fields and feelings of cultural isolation in relation to normative practices were front and center at SACNAS. But so were personal historical narratives in which culture (however one defines that) is a source of strength and a reason to not only do science, but to change science.

Mentoring is a core function of SACNAS. It brings to the fore, more than in other scientific communities I’ve encountered, systematic and open discussion about personal history, and the importance of family as both a source of support and a reason to achieve. It goes without saying that Native American and Latino scientists do science because they are deeply curious, and want to prove, in response to racist contrary assumptions, that they could. But I also heard a lot of talk about giving back, even when one’s family or cultural kin don’t understand or are leery of the decision to become a scientist.

In a panel on the “real life adventures” of SACNAS scientists, four established scientists—two bioscientists, a chemist, and a mathematician gave off-the-cuff talks recounting their personal, familial, and systemic (e.g. racism and poverty) challenges on their way to achieving PhDs. One panelist, a Chicana professor of mathematics, recounted, growing up poor in East Los Angeles, but with a close-knit family, a charismatic and hard-driving high school math teacher, enabling her journey to an elite private women’s university and on to a PhD in mathematics. But the moment in her talk that encapsulates the SACNAS difference is when she stated unapologetically that she may not be at the cutting-edge of new mathematical theory. She has come to realize that she got a PhD in mathematics “to produce great mathematicians.” She will graduate her first PhD soon. For those who were not in the room, it may be hard to understand how it felt to hear that, but the room immediately erupted into applause. Her tone was powerful, her heartfelt openness a testament to the centrality of mentoring in this community. I was moved almost to tears.

On the same panel, Professor Wilfred Denetclaw, Diné (or Navajo), from San Francisco State University told of growing up on the Navajo reservation and earning PhD in zoology at Berkeley, and the culture shock he encountered along the way. The difference-making part of the talk for me is the way his “marginal” culture was made normative. Professor Denetclaw spoke a bit of Diné language in his talk, and not in that way I often see at social science or humanities conferences or agency meetings, where Native American languages seem to be treated as sacred artifacts, and not everyday things. Professor Denetclaw recounted his lineage and clan, then spoke with a jovial tone that indicated even to a non-speaker like me that there were enough folks in the room who actually understood him that he could use the language to actually communicate, and not simply as protocol or to demonstrate respect. Denetclaw was of course in a privileged position. There are more Native language speakers among the Navajo than in many other tribes in the U.S. I also find that Diné are over-represented among tribal people in the biophysical sciences. At one point I encountered six Diné scientists talking in a circle before a session, probably power broking! They were all laughing and in a good mood. It felt like the Diné scientific mafia. I felt tickled. What a different scene from the American Association of Physical Anthropologists or American Society of Human Genetics meetings that I also attend.

In between panel sessions and keynotes, at dinners and lunches that are served to thousands in a gigantic banquet hall, SACNAS members shared their personal stories and the role of SACNAS in their lives. Every graduate student and professor I talked to, most of whom had been coming to SACNAS for years, spoke of the affirmation and encouragement they receive there. Some spoke of hard times in science when they considered leaving their labs or their fields entirely, times when they felt like social or cultural curiosities. But SACNAS colleagues continued to network them and help them find opportunities to stay in science, and encouraged them to stick with science and to make it different. Several told me that they didn’t get this encouragement with their primary advisors at their universities, but did from SACNAS where people understand where they come from, and where they can be who they are. I was astounded by the power of this organization in the lives of the Native American and Chicano scientists I met. During one of the meals, the Executive Director of SACNAS, the impressive Judit Camacho, asked all newly graduated PhDs in the crowd to “please stand and be recognized by your community.” Individuals all across the hall stood to applause. At that same banquet, a twenty-something student from Salish Kootenai College of the Flathead Indian Reservation in Montana introduced her mentor at the college (a non-Native, middle-aged, male scientist) who was there to receive an award for developing the first fully accredited Bachelor of Science degree in a molecular science at a tribal college. She explained that “connecting science to culture is very important to Native students. It keeps us interested in coming back for more.” (I thought in response that “science”—meaning high-tech Western science—is always connected to culture of course, just not our Native American cultures.) She was so confident, and her mentor so humble. Both clearly articulated the complex connections between culturally resonant science education, tribal institution-building, and flourishing in Indian Country.

Listening to SACNISTAS (their affectionate name for themselves) situate[1] themselves and their institutions reinforces my sense that having more diverse scientists might make scientific fields and institutions more explicitly conscious of their cultural presumptions that work for some and not others. Scientists from historically marginalized groups might more clearly see the development of scientific fields as entangled with not only the good, but also the violent and oppressive aspects of human history than their colleagues. They are less likely to displace blame onto “politics” and “religion.” I hear this claim in the Q&A after every talk I give about the politics of human genome diversity research. “It’s not the science that’s the problem,” some audience member will claim. “It’s the scientifically uneducated public, or the science reporters who skew our words and findings!” Scientists who are able and willing to be more critically reflective of their fields give me hope that scientific fields and practices can be made more tolerant, multicultural, and democratic.

This idea and hope is central to my current research project, Constituting Knowledge across Cultures of Expertise and Tradition: An Ethnographic Study of Indigenous Bio-scientists and Their Collaborators. A key hypothesis of this new research is that diverse scientists [2] will open up scientific fields to more diverse research questions, methods and ethical innovations that will better serve the research priorities of a broader array of individuals and communities (the meanings for me of “democratizing” science). Indeed, a couple of the Native American scientists who work with ancient human DNA make a case that Native American tribes might want to reconsider doing genetic research on ancient remains. What are their reasons? That Native Americans have the incentive to develop research methods that are less destructive of bone and that are more respectful to the being whose remains are being studied (they are not viewed as simply lifeless bone). Native American genetic scientists also tend to be much more interested in what happened over here, and not so much in how, when or how many people crossed the Bering Strait. How are tribal peoples today related to one another? What were their associations historically? How does the genetics correlate with their oral histories about how they are related and associated? How can both human genetics and plant genetics illuminate those relationships? And how can they do genetic research in ways that are respectful and appropriate, and which accord more intellectual property rights to Native peoples and not simply to non-indigenous institutions?

These Native American scientists understand that scientific narratives have much authority in policymaking. It is therefore prudent to have a voice in the construction of historical narratives that are increasingly genetic with research questions and hypotheses, methods and ethics that are consonant with our cultural practices and knowledge priorities, rather than shaped solely by non-tribal research priorities and Western bioethical assumptions. Native scientists provide the antidote to the discouragement I felt when I first started researching the politics and cultures of human genome diversity research involving “Native American” migrations into the so-called New World. The assumptions, priorities and technical language I encountered suggested to me a lack of real investment in the flourishing of the indigenous communities whose DNA was required for study. Perhaps in the abstract scientists like the idea of indigenous flourishing, but like philosophers, naturalists, and federal agents before them, they too often presume that indigenous peoples are doomed to vanish and then define us out of existence, in this case according to degrees of genetic admixture. These politics set the stage for the urgency to sample. The conceptual frameworks of the Native scientists I’ve encountered seem more critical than those of those non-indigenous scientists who privilege myopically constructed genetic narratives of the “history of the Americas” while our creation narratives and our incisive analyses of colonial history on these continents get ignored. But the binary thinking that shapes genetic research sometimes shapes our responses to that research. Genetics OR creation narratives is unsatisfying. So is the concept of accepting (tolerating?) “multiple truths.” I’m looking for a more fundamental conceptual overhaul.

I want to learn how to learn, see, and speak in new ways with Native American scientists. I began this new research with hope that Native American scientists (and scientists who work in long-term collaborative arrangements with indigenous peoples) might be different from others I had encountered, and might be willing participants in a more complicated, constructive, even anti-colonial conversation. I worried that Native American bio-scientists too would be indoctrinated with overly simplistic notions of neutrality vs. bias, or that research is primarily about freedom of inquiry. Would they understand that “research” is always also the extraction of resources (be they biological or cultural or intellectual) often primarily for the benefit of those who inquire and their institutions? I have been pleased and a little surprised by the scientists I have interviewed and observed—that I can have this kind of conversation. My social science chauvinism has been thankfully undermined when I speak with them.

Critique, Productively Aimed: Heteronormativity and Political Economy

Much of my research involves interviewing scientists. Attending the SACNAS meeting was a form of participant observation. But I am no distant observer of scientists. I interact as someone who is positively invested in their project and a productive participant in their community. Next year I will propose a panel on some of the very issues I write about here. Like the SACNAS scientists, I need this differently-thinking community to help me stay in the academy. I conceived of a project to research Native American scientists because I needed to care for my subjects. I came to a point where I began to feel demoralized by what and whom I studied. I did not like how it felt to not care, indeed even to hope sometimes for the projects I studied to fail.

Because the SACNAS scientists give me hope, I want to help their cause, to diversify who does science and how we do it. If I am a member of their community, I have a responsibility to offer supportive critique, critique that is productively aimed. I have two such critiques to offer after several panel sessions and two award ceremonies this year. First, it struck me that things felt heteronormative at SACNAS. That is, every person’s story presented on a panel or in an award ceremony featured the family unit that consists of heterosexual married couples with children. Everyone was married. Everyone had children. Granted, there were plenty of women scientists. Indeed the gendered patterns of colonialism have produced higher levels of formal education amongst women than men in some communities. Still I didn’t see a queer scientist in the bunch, or a non-normative family form aside from the extended family. At the social science and humanities meetings I’ve attended queer academic presence and politics are everywhere. Then I investigated the SACNAS program, and lo and behold I saw a reception hosted by the National organization for Gay and Lesbian Scientists and Technical Professionals for “lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender people, and their allies.” I had to get home to my own child and so could not attend the reception, but I am curious to go next year and to hear more about the role of LGBT scientists at SACNAS. How might they make science more multicultural and democratic, including by questioning the imposition of heteronormative assumptions onto nonhumans in research.

SACNAS 2011 exhibitor hall. UC Berkeley & UC Davis recruitment and display tables

SACNAS 2011 exhibitor hall. UC Berkeley & UC Davis recruitment and display tables

But my big struggle at the SACNAS meeting is the political economy of big science and technology. We in the academy all know the economic disparities between the social sciences/humanities and the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). Those disparities were in my face at SACNAS. Multi-course meals with banquet staff were served throughout the meeting. SACNAS was able to give 1000 travel scholarships to students: amazing. Sponsors included major scientific research agencies and foundations and donations in the tens of thousands up to $100,000 by several universities. Like the American Society of Human Genetics (ASHG) meeting that I sometimes attend, this meeting was kitted out with lots of expensive technology. At regular panel sessions and keynotes, two gigantic overhead screens flanked the stages where speakers sat in television talk show-style chairs or spoke at podiums. Presentations were slickly programmed with all kinds of special effects that you just don’t see in the technologically staid PowerPoint presentations of most social scientists. There were precisely programmed musical clips playing as speakers ascended and left the stage and for the photo ops that followed each award. As at the ASHG Presidential Address I blogged about last year, there were camera men on platforms filming the keynotes. The different political economic reality at play in the STEM fields was particularly noticeable when the lights in the cavernous banquet hall were turned completely down and the Star Wars theme began playing. Two astronauts hovering mid-air in the International Space Station appeared on screen, so much larger than life. They had recorded a personalized welcome for the 2011 SACNAS meeting participants. The room swelled with laughter and applause, mine included. I understood like never before how intoxicating can be the nectar of big science and technology. I was certainly not the only person at my banquet table to feel like I’d traveled a long way from that reservation border town where I grew up. Sharing the moment with the promising and gregarious young Diné scientist sitting next to me, my critical perspective was definitely mixed with pleasure.

But pleasure turned to sadness for me when the big name speakers took the stage. Two middle-aged white males from a highly ranked university, both in positions of great power in that university, and with esteemed scientific careers, gave talks meant to inspire. For some of the scientists in the hall, I am sure they did. What I heard was the gospel of neutral, universal science unencumbered with critical reflection on the histories of exclusion that condition the disciplines, all of our disciplines. One of the speakers, a prize-winning scientist, projected photographs of his prize-winning team, all white males except one male from China. Yet no histories of exclusion in his scientific field were acknowledged. To the contrary, he spoke to the room full of brown faces and said “You too can win this prize someday.” Deploying a “pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps” narrative against a depoliticized history of his field seemed so unfitting a gesture before this crowd. Hadn’t we just heard from SACNAS members about the importance of personal and social histories shaping the questions asked, the methods used, the way analysis is done?

The other big man of science, also an administrator, delivered the second sermon of the night: big science and technology as salvation from our economic and political woes. He focused on the role of science and technology in U.S. global capitalist competitiveness. And he spoke of the role of “diversity and inclusion”—of giving people of color accessto all of this opportunity and economic largess. He noted nothing about how diversifying science can also make scientific questions and methods more robust and our interpretations more rigorous, and help science serve a wider array of people. Nor did he note the current political economy of the university in which class divisions get deeper and deeper between fields of inquiry.

The problem with the line “diversity and inclusion” in use at so many universities around the country is that it can refer to gender balance or to the browning of the laboratory, but it doesn’t mean changing how science gets done. While the famous guys who came to speak at SACNAS may not get that, the SACNISTAS I talked to do get it. The conceptual distance between those who control the university and those who work for “inclusion” is vast. I drove the 47 miles home to Berkeley feeling profoundly weary. I hope that SACNAS scientists as they ascend to places of power in research and funding institutions think harder about the current political economy of research, and how to help narrow those gaps. I ask them that while they take pleasure in their own fields, not to become STEM chauvinists. I trust that they will do better at avoiding the myopic and dangerous view that big science and technology are objective goods, unconditioned by histories and ongoing relationships of oppression and exclusion.

Postscript: Writing and Studying While the Occupy Movement Simmers around Me

A couple of weeks ago, I entered the San Jose Convention center feeling conflicted about my privilege. I thought not simply of “poor masses,” but of close friends and family who are unemployed, facing unemployment, who do not have health care, or enough money to pay their bills every month. I thought of the Occupy Oakland folks who were at that very moment downtown at Oscar Grant Plaza, just a few miles from my house in Berkeley. (Oscar Grant was the young African American man who was killed while he lay prostrate, unarmed, in a subway station by a BART cop on New Year’s Eve 2009.) In San Jose, in that gleaming temperature- and socially-controlled convention center, I felt a distance between what I am doing and what those folks were doing and continue to do—that multi-racial, multi-generational, multi-class group of citizens who are apparently putting their bodies on the line given incidents of police aggression against non-violent protestors. While I was at SACNAS, just like all of those SACNAS scientists and scientists-in-training, I chose to be in a research community, to do work that is personally fulfilling, but that I hope makes a difference for the communities I care about. I have always understood research to consist of political acts, and I feel the need to explicitly link my everyday work inside the hallowed halls of Berkeley with critical “everyday” events in our world. The negative links between powerful research institutions and the lives of the less powerful are for this social scientist always clear. The history and political economy of the disciplines is intimately linked with war-making and exploitation and land and resource-grabs in the development of nations. (Increasingly the STEM fields grab the power while the humanities and social sciences get increasingly marginalized.) But the positive links between research inside an institution such as Berkeley and social struggles can be hard to see, or the positive links seem farfetched or too costly to folks who live in immediate material deprivation and with daily violence .

I stare out the window of the small Vietnamese restaurant where I now write, and I try to think of a convincing response to that challenge. Across the street I see a Bank of America branch with a cop standing in front of it, protecting the interests of the powerful. I’ve noticed these past days increased police presence outside the big banks, no doubt in response to the protests against the role of bank corruption in our current economic crisis. At the same time I now hear the helicopters beat the air overhead as student protestors gather at nearby Sproul Plaza. I bring up the San Francisco Chronicle online and read: 21 minutes ago, “Dozens of campus police in riot gear…descended on students outside UC Berkeley’s Sproul Hall and arrested several protesters as they attempted to set up an ‘Occupy Cal’ encampment.” A campus spokesperson notes that “tents and overnight encampments will not be tolerated.” The police, of course, are not there to protect the interests of the students—those who are not very powerful and who are in solidarity with the Occupy movement. Police are there to stand in a line against them. Students, like bank protestors are too often seen as always already about-to-be criminals. As I write, I receive a department-wide email from a senior colleague, Wayne Getz, a bio-scientist coincidentally (quoted here with his permission):

“I [and a colleague] have just returned from Sproul Plaza, where we had the misfortune to witness the apparent unnecessary use of physical force by the UC and Alameda Sheriff’s PD against peaceful protesters assembled on the lawn. [We] observed repeated incidents of baton jabbing and overhead baton hitting of students whose apparent crime was to be physically present on the lawn in support of the placement of tents. Several individuals were arrested, including one well-dressed women in her mature years. All arrested individuals were roughly handled. We were both disgusted by these acts and question the wisdom of our university’s leadership (noticeably absent) that set up this type of confrontational situation between students and police (with at least one of the latter carrying out his duty with some reluctance). The time has come when we should openly question some of the decisions being made by our academic leaders in allowing confrontational situations between police and the university community to unnecessarily arise.”

Wayne Getz, Professor
Department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management
UC Berkeley
(November 9, 2011)

Like the young scientists at SACNAS, the Berkeley students inspire me. The sciences, like the university more broadly, are both culprit and fertile ground for change. I have to hope that this is the case, and so I write against a dominant narrative that would over-simplify the role of the sciences and scientists in this history unfolding around us. I write about alternative assumptions and practices, and those individuals amongst us who are able to imagine a different future.

*This material is based in part upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant Number 1027307.

[1] For science studies folks it goes without saying that any references to “situated” refer to Donna Haraway’s seminal essay “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective.” In Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. New York and London: Routledge 1991: 183-201. My references to the democratization of science are much informed by the thinking of feminist philosopher of science Sandra Harding and by my previous exposure to the field of community planning, a field in which research and doing are one-in-the-same. And it is assumed that communities should research and do for themselves. Finally, my understanding that research is always a set of political acts was developed early on. I was five years old when I was first exposed to the ideas of Vine Deloria, Jr., particularly in his famous essay, “Anthropologists and other Friends.” In Custer Died for Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto.1969. Reprint, Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1988.
[2] In this case Native Americans, but we can extend the hypothesis to scientists from multiple race, class, and religious backgrounds, and to sexuality.