Contributed by: Alice Robson, Bronwen Burton, Caroline McKinnon, Ames Mosley, Zafar Bashir
Over the past two years, the three Biomedical Sciences Schools have been working to decolonise and diversify the curriculum. This has involved working in partnership with students to review our taught material and carrying out research to gauge understanding and attitudes towards decolonising and diversifying the curriculum. Discussions with our student partners, as well as outcomes from surveys and focus groups, revealed that there is a significant interest amongst biomedical students for a workshop to explore and discuss complex issues around the epistemic legacy of colonialism within their discipline.
Funding from a BILT Education Development Project allowed us to deliver a workshop, hosted in partnership with Lara Lalemi, director of the Creative Tuition Collective. The workshop took place on Monday 30th Jan 2023 and was advertised to undergraduate students across the 3 Schools, across all year groups. Although the event was attended by fewer students than we had hoped (16 students), there was excellent engagement from those that did attend. Lara opened the session with an informative introduction to the topic, giving recent examples of bias in scientific knowledge production and demonstrating that science is not apolitical. For example, she explained how the perpetrator of the 2022 mass shooting in Buffalo, in which 10 black people were killed, cited a British academic who has published scientific articles around race, to justify the attack. Lara went on to inspire students about their own power to implement change, by explaining her personal journey into decolonising work, all undertaken alongside her university studies.
The students were then divided into small groups to have discussions, led by staff facilitators. Each group of students was given two issues to discuss: one focussed on scientific research and one more specifically about education in biomedical sciences. Examples included:
- Given that race is not biologically absolute, does it matter that most cell lines used in biomedical research are from ‘white’ individuals?
- Discuss the ethical issues and define good practice for developing medicinal drugs or research tools from indigenous sources.
- Some of the scientists that made great contributions in our field had problematic views or methods, for example based on racism or sexism. Should we still include these scientists and their work in our courses? Find some examples from your course and discuss how you think this should be approached.
Feedback from participants was almost universally positive, with almost all students saying they enjoyed the session and found it informative. Students particularly enjoyed the opportunity for open discussions, felt very comfortable exploring the topics, and felt well supported by the facilitators. Many students commented that they thought this type of session should be mandatory:
“Make it compulsory, the only people in attendance were those most affected by these issues and honestly not the people that need to most be listening to these conversations”
“more and COMPULSORY. Was so so so good!!!!!”
Students reported a marked increase in their understanding about decolonising and diversifying biomedical science after the session compared to before the session (Figure 1).
Figure 1. Student responses to the question “How much do you feel you understand about decolonising and diversifying biomedical science before/after completing this session?” p<0.001 (Mann Whitney U test).
Following the success of this pilot workshop, it has been agreed to run a similar workshop on a much larger scale, as a compulsory element of a Year 2 unit taken by all undergraduate students in the Schools of Biochemistry, Cellular & Molecular Medicine and Physiology, Pharmacology & Neuroscience. This will therefore run in 2023-24 with a cohort of around 450 students, giving the opportunity to learn about and discuss these important issues across the whole Biomedical Sciences cohort. We hope that this will facilitate discussions about inclusivity in science, making the discipline feel more accessible and relevant for all our students.
The large-scale version of this workshop entitled “Equality and Inequality in Science” will run for the first time in TB1 of 2023-24 in the Biomedical Research, Enterprise and Employability (BREES) unit. The topics discussed will feed into an assessed piece of work, where students work in groups to produce a grant proposal. As part of this assignment the students must assess the ethical considerations of their proposal, which can include discussion of topics raised within the workshop.
Alice Robson, Bronwen Burton