Non-objective observers: Untangling bias in science and conservation

A recent paper demonstrates why the way we do science is just as important as the research itself

Dr. Nigel Golden (left) and David Davis, a Ph.D. student at Rutgers University, conduct sample analysis at the Polaris Project field site in Alaska.

photo by Sue Natali

Ecological research seeks to describe the interactions between an environment and the species living there. But there’s one important species most ecological work overlooks—us.

Human society, our histories, our economies, our politics, has played just as much hand in shaping ecology as the migration of animals or the shifting of continents has. The darker sides of human history—war, colonialism, racism—have had especially long-lasting effects. Yet ecological research seldom attempts to grapple with these forces. Ignoring the human element within the history of a landscape has led to research and conservation efforts that are at best, clumsy, and at worst, extractive and exploitative.

A recent paper, spearheaded by Yale Ph.D. student Gabriel Gadsden and Woodwell Climate postdoctoral researcher Dr. Nigel Golden, under the advisement of Yale University Professor, Dr. Nyeema Harris, has laid out a more interdisciplinary approach to conservation ecology, one that reckons with the negative histories affecting research sites and uses that knowledge to reduce bias within the scientific process. Failing to do so, the paper argues, perpetuates a societal “landscape of fear”—one that restricts the potential benefits of science for both wildlife and human communities.

Fear moves like a predator

In ecology, the term “landscape of fear” is used to describe animal behaviors as a product of perceived risk or fear, specifically of predation. For example, if you are an elephant, Dr. Golden suggests, one of the largest animals moving through the physical landscape, you have few predators; your risk of being hunted is low. The amount of time you can spend searching for food isn’t limited by fear. But if you are one of the Arctic ground squirrels that Dr. Golden conducted his graduate research on, everything from grizzly bears to golden eagles to foxes and weasels, is hunting you. The elephant’s behavior is constrained by access to food and water and other resources, but the ground squirrel’s behaviors are likely more motivated by fear. Animals perceive threats within a landscape and react accordingly.

But, as Gadsden points out, “Fear is an emotion that humans deal with, too.”

Fear moves like a predator on human landscapes, creating perceptions of places and people that may be incomplete or flat out inaccurate. When science is constrained by these perceptions, everything from the methods used, to the research questions being asked, is tainted with bias.

“If you fear a landscape, then you probably aren’t going to go there to do your research,” Gadsden explains. “If you have this dominant idea about people that maybe isn’t true, you’re not going to seek collaborations with them. Or maybe you will do research in that area, but it won’t be community-led and community-oriented. All of the unspoken restrictions that fear induces has implications on research outside of the significance of a result.”

Like a predator, these fears often target the most vulnerable groups. In urban environments, unequal distribution of greenspace has resulted in less wealthy, often minority, neighborhoods suffering much higher risks of extreme heat and consequent health impacts. This disparity has its origins in racist housing and development policies like redlining—which limited financial services available to people deemed “hazardous to investment,” and reduced financial growth in their neighborhoods.

sunny paved street in industrial neighborhood in worcester MA
power lines in field behind fence

Distribution of greenspace in cities is often impacted by historical discrimination. In a historically poorer, more industrial neighborhood in Worcester, MA, what little greenspace is present is fenced off and inaccessible to the public.

photo by Sarah Ruiz

At a larger scale, these biases can be seen in the types of environments that are prioritized for conservation. There is a false notion that “pristine” wilderness holds more value than areas deemed degraded or developed, an idea that ignores the fact that many “pristine” wilderness spaces were shaped for centuries by Indigenous communities.

Do your research before you do your research

Acknowledging history, Gadsden and Dr. Golden say, is a critical first step in conducting science and conservation that doesn’t play into these unequal and unjust perceptions—causing more harm, even when the intention is to help.

In the case of the first U.S. National Parks, intended to protect the country’s natural landscapes from development, the removal of Indigenous peoples has left an indelible mark on the history and ecology of the American West. Not understanding that Native communities had been maintaining healthy and productive forests using controlled fire, U.S. Forest Service policies harshly suppressed fires for over a century which altered the ecological composition of the forest and allowed dry fuel to build up. This, coupled with a climate growing hotter and drier, created the conditions for the intense and out-of-control wildfires seen today.

Examples like this are common in the field of conservation wherever researchers enter a new landscape without knowledge of the site’s history.

“We know that our science is not just informed by the landscape or the species,” says Dr. Golden. “It’s also informed by the social and political context around it.”

So Gadsden and Dr. Golden recommend scientists begin their research by asking the right questions.

“Okay, so this is your study site?” says Gadsden. Now ask, “How did your study site come to be?”

Recognition of these histories could be as simple as a paragraph embedded in an article, or a land acknowledgement published alongside the research, but the paper outlines additional steps for researchers to take. Including local communities at the outset of a project, especially when developing conservation plans that will impact them, can further strip back biases and help scientists better understand local perspectives on the natural environment.

“One generally would not venture into the jungle without first building a relationship with a local guide,” the authors write in the paper, pointing out that it should be equally unadvisable to venture into a community without building connections with people who can guide you through it. 

Building better science together

Their final recommendation involves collaboration across disciplines. The paper suggests that scientific research could benefit from “co-creating knowledge” with groups focused on sociological or environmental justice research to grapple with the ways societal and political forces have shaped ecology.

Dr. Golden has been applying these concepts to Woodwell Climate’s Polaris Project, which he coordinates. The project gives young scientists hands-on experience working in an Arctic environment.

Nigel Golden teaching at polaris field site

Dr. Golden (right) helps a Polaris student with her research at the project’s field site in Alaska.

photo by Sue Natali

“But it’s unethical for us to bring folks into Arctic science without having a clear understanding of the history of the Arctic and Arctic peoples, and how we’ve gotten to the problems that we are trying to solve today,” Dr. Golden explains. So the program is working on better understanding the history of their field site in Alaska. Polaris has partnered with the grassroots community leadership group Native Movement to conduct anti-colonial training for their participants.

“Knowing the history and context of the communities living in Alaska is one of the guidelines that we can use for co-creating knowledge with those communities,” says Dr. Golden.

These recommendations, Dr. Golden hopes, will provide a path forward for scientists looking to reduce bias in their research, and bring forward the voices of groups historically marginalized by biased science.

“If we focus on the most marginalized, we’re more likely to produce outcomes that are equitable for everyone,” Dr. Golden says.

Author Sarah Ruiz