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Cambridge University Science Magazine

Who produces scientific knowledge? Popular science narratives often tell sensational stories of scientific discovery that focus on a surprisingly narrow cast of characters. We hear a lot about the Newtons, the Darwins, the Cricks and Watsons—but far less about the hidden figures who made their achievements possible. Perhaps the most familiar case of the appropriation and miscrediting of scientific knowledge is the attribution of the “discovery” of the structure of DNA to Francis Crick and James Watson, erasing vital contributions made by Rosalind Franklin to our understanding of the molecule’s structure. Myths about who legitimately produces scientific knowledge, which suppress the important work of marginalised people, often have devastating knock-on effects for these groups’ representation in the sciences. The Institute of Physics revealed that 44% of schools in Britain didn’t have any girls who went on to study physics at A-Level in 2018, and there were only 85 Black first-year physics undergraduates in British universities in 2016. The history of science abounds with cases where the credit for producing knowledge has been misattributed, often contributing to pre-existing gender and racial injustices. But the problem goes deeper than the important issue of women and minority representation in the sciences. Certain scientific labourers—such as lab technicians, factory workers who produce scientific instrumentation, and so-called “citizen scientist” data processors—many of whom are also marginalised by virtue of their race, gender, and class positions, have historically and contemporarily been ignored as legitimate participants in scientific activities and breakthroughs. This FOCUS article probes how and why certain people have had their contributions to the sciences erased and asks how we can start addressing the perpetuation of structural inequalities in and by the sciences.

Mind Over Matter?

Historians and, increasingly, philosophers of science have developed something close to a consensus around the view that scientific knowledge cannot be (or, at the very least, has not in fact been) produced without the interactions of various sorts of technical experts from a diversity of professional or cultural groups. The world is, after all, abundant and complex, and no single individual or cultural group has access to the prerequisite skills and knowledge to investigate it in its entirety. However, we can push some of these thoughts even further by asking not only whose work is foregrounded in the history of science, but what kinds of work have been interpreted as more or less central to scientific knowledge production; and we can ask how these two questions relate to one another. As in the case of Franklin’s crystallographic contributions to the discovery of the double helix, scientific labour is sometimes differentiated according to whether it is “intellectual” or “manual”—and, similarly, whether it is “theoretical” or “experimental”, “cognitive” or “embodied”, “conceptual” or “practical”—with the latter often getting assigned a lower centrality in our narratives of science. The erasure of manual labour from scientific narratives commingles with the marginalisation of women and racialized people.

Hidden Histories

Let’s begin with one of modern science’s loftiest titans, Isaac Newton. Born in Woolsthorpe, Lincolnshire in 1643, Newton joined Trinity College, Cambridge in 1661 as an undergraduate, a college to which he was elected a fellow in October 1667. Two years later, he became the master of Trinity, and in 1687 he published Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica, which famously contained his laws of motion and the theory of universal gravitation. Newton is an excellent example of how popular myths about science take shape; the natural philosopher is widely depicted as having been a cloistered, isolated genius, who unravelled the deepest mysteries of the universe from his study in Trinity College and from the famous apple orchard at his family’s manor in Lincolnshire. He didn’t travel much during his life, spending most of his time between Cambridge and London, where in 1699 he became Master of the Royal Mint and in 1703 was made President of the Royal Society. Despite carrying the name “universal” gravitation, Newton’s physics appears, at first sight, to be exclusively English by origin, the product of a secluded and brilliant mind. However, looking more closely at how Newton compiled the data to formulate his theory, we see just how dependent the natural philosopher was on Europe’s world-spanning colonial networks.

As historian of science Simon Schaffer has shown, far from being a cloistered individual, Newton was situated in an array of different global networks, all of which fed crucial data that shaped his scientific work. For instance, measurements of the period of a pendulum made at different points on the Earth’s surface, which Newton used to put together his theory, took place at important nexuses in the Atlantic slave triangle, the trading route between Europe, the Americas and west Africa. Were it not for the brutal slave trade, in whose key ports of Cayenne and Gorée data were collected, often by French travellers piggybacking on European slave-port networks, Newton’s theory may not have taken shape the way it did. Thus, how “English” or “Newtonian” can we truly call the theory presented in the Principia? Despite bearing the natural philosopher’s name, Newton’s theories relied on a wealth of painstakingly-made observations, performed and reported by people operating far beyond the shores of the British Isles, who likely would not have found themselves there were it not for the transatlantic slave trade. It is important to stress, however, that the purpose of this case study is not to suggest that the development of Newton’s theories in any way justifies the existence of the transatlantic slave trade. On the authors’ views, there is no justifying the brutalisation, dehumanisation and mass-murder engendered by slave trades. What we want to say is that the idea that the modern sciences owe their existence disproportionately to a single, English natural philosopher serves to obscure its deeply social and global origins; further, as we discuss below, it obscures the entanglement between modern sciences and colonial violence.

Another practice that would likely never have taken hold in the west without the transatlantic slave trade is the cultivation of rice in the Americas—an industry worth over 3 billion USD in 2020. In popular myths, the mastery of industrial-scale agriculture, like other modern sciences, is widely associated with the development of techniques traditionally attributed to Europeans, which supposedly “diffused” to the rest of the world. However, as geographer Judith Carney demonstrated in 2001, rather than rice cultivation having been “brought” to west Africa by Portuguese sailors, there existed a long and continuous tradition of rice agriculture in the continent, mastered by generations by African women and transmitted orally and through embodied practice. Indeed, as Carney has shown, enslaved African women brought both the raw materials and technical expertise with them to the Carolinas in America—a fact acknowledged by slave owners who would pay as much for enslaved women who were agricultural experts as they would for enslaved men.

Such stories point to the indelibly global and colonial character of the sciences; people from vastly diverse cultural and geographical backgrounds, often brought together under conditions of extreme domination and coercion, exchanged practices and thus generated new scientific knowledge—the scientific knowledge that helped shape and was shaped by the emergent modern world. The examples of such encounters go on and on; historian of science Kapil Raj has explained how between 1650 and 1900, South Asians were active albeit marginalised participants in the making of a vast range of modern scientific disciplines. For example, he has demonstrated that many of the technical practices still used in cartography and land surveying today were jointly developed by Indian travellers and surveyors and British colonial administrators, albeit with a deeply unequal relationship.

We can see how this erasure of the manual labour involved in scientific knowledge production works in some concrete cases. As alluded to in the introduction, a better-known case of the appropriation of scientific credit is the debate over who “discovered” the structure of DNA. A blue plaque commemorating Crick and Watson, who “announced their discovery of how DNA carries genetic information” was unveiled outside the Eagle pub in April 2003 by Watson (who, it is worth noting, has a record of making deeply racist and misogynistic comments about women and racialised peoples’ cognitive abilities).

Philosopher of science Michelle Gibbons has explained that the retrospective crediting of DNA’s “discovery” to Crick and Watson sheds an important light on how popular science narratives link “scientific breakthroughs'' to supposedly detached, immaterial cognitive leaps, rather than to the actual, material work that went in to generate knowledge. These stories about how science works portray discoveries as “Eureka!” moments, not that differently from the point in a whodunnit when something clicks in the detective’s mind and everything falls into place. Franklin was an X-ray crystallographer working on imaging DNA at the King’s College London lab led by Maurice Wilkins, a close friend of Crick and Watson. Without her consent, Wilkins showed Crick and Watson an image—“Photo 51”—showing what the pair later announced was DNA’s double helix structure, produced by Franklin and her assistant graduate student, Raymond Gosling. When Crick, Watson, and Wilkins were awarded the 1962 Nobel Prize in Medicine or Physiology, neither Franklin nor Gosling were acknowledged as contributors to the scientific understanding of DNA.

Whether or not Franklin and Gosling’s image was “necessary” for Crick and Watson’s determination of DNA’s structure is not the point. Rather, their work was appropriated, marginalised, and not credited; in part as a result of structural and individual misogyny in the sciences (Watson famously commented that “the best place for a feminist was in another person’s lab”) and also as a consequence of the consistent and classist privileging of “intellectual” processes over “manual” practices in popular narratives of science (of course, producing crystollographic photographs is a deeply intellectual practice, but the mythical binary still holds in the popular imaginary).

illustration of franklin and dna

Making the Modern Sciences

The recent documentary Black Holes: The Edge of All We Know, directed by historian and philosopher of science Peter Galison, highlights just to what extent practicing the sciences is a messy, collaborative endeavour. Following a team of astronomers working on the Event Horizon Telescope project—an effort to capture the first image of a black hole—at the Large Millimeter Telescope in the Sierra Negra in Mexico, Galison’s film reveals how scientists from entirely different scholarly cultures had to come together at a conference in Nijmegen in the Netherlands, and decide on a final answer regarding what the black hole at the centre of the galaxy M85 looked like. As the documentary illustrates, there was disagreement, there was conflict, and scientists’ credibility was up for grabs at the event. Nonetheless, the diverse teams eventually settled on an image, which on 10th April 2019 did the rounds of the world’s media. The documentary’s authentic look into how scientific “discoveries” are made—entailing messy moments where consensus is remarkably rare—sheds light on how far removed the myth of scientific individualism driving innovation is from reality.

The preceding historical case-studies have, we hope, served to show that the received, popular myths about the origins of modern scientific discoveries erase the contributions of socially marginalised experts and obscure the sense in which scientific activity is irreducibly global and social. We can see a more intense process of the “invisibilisation” of manual labour in our current moment as well, when we consider the contemporary global supply chains involved in modern scientific instrument manufacturing and operation. Almost all modern scientific research relies on such instruments at some stage in the experimental and observational processes (just as Galileo relied on the telescope). By extension, modern scientific research cannot operate without the maintenance of global supply chains for the commodities required in the manufacture and maintenance of instruments. To take one example: as is by now rather well known, lithium ion batteries are rechargeable batteries that are almost ubiquitous in their uses in electrical devices, from smartphones and solar panels to emergency medical equipment and, indeed, many scientific instruments. It is by no means a stretch to say, then, that much of the world’s contemporary research activity would be impossible without the manual labour of various workers acting within the supply chains for lithium ion batteries—not just those working in the extraction and manufacturing processes, but also those in the logistics sector such as truck drivers, dock workers and administrators.

The Spectre of Colonialism

We can now turn to the following questions: who benefits from the popular narratives of science? Who benefits from a story of the  history of science as the punctuated activity of individual geniuses (most of them wealthy European men) and a contemporary picture of scientific research in which millions of workers are made invisible?

Our hypothesis, alluded to throughout the article, is that the production of scientific knowledge is bound up with imperialism and the contemporary legacies of colonialism, and as such the beneficiaries of these myths are the same beneficiaries of those unjust systems. Though scientific knowledge is intended to be universally valid, its history is mythologised primarily through the white, European and patriarchal lens. The lack of credit afforded to workers as contributors to scientific knowledge, especially those exploited by imperialist arrangements, is not only inaccurate as the historical record of colonialism goes, but it also continues to sustain the perpetuation of misogynistic and racist prejudices and, by extension, underrepresentation of women and racialised groups in the sciences today. For example, AI technologies such as facial recognition are still heavily being trained on white faces and features, and there are pre-existing biases in the datasets and algorithms used to train such technologies. This has resulted in increased error rates when detecting racialized people, especially Black people, and a higher chance of misidentifying them as criminals. Additionally, Black people have been pathologized by Europeans at least as far back as the mid-seventeenth century, when the Italian physician Marcello Malpighi claimed to have discovered, by dissecting an African man, that Black people had a layer of dark mucus under their skins.

While many understand “official” colonialism to have ended (though much of it continues in the form of overseas territories), the power imbalances between countries of the Global North and South still remain prevalent and persistent, and this is evident in the sciences. Ethnic minorities are often disproportionately represented in the upper echelons, and exploited economies are still perceived as dependent on financial  aid and scientific expertise from the West.

What Is To Be Done?

Bringing all of the above together, it is clear that, as a bare minimum, some deep reflection in the sciences needs to take place. In our contemporary moment, there are deeply entrenched biases, prejudices and unjust power dynamics in the sciences that need to be unlearned, such that the equal participation and representation of women, racialised people and other marginalised groups can be addressed. To that end, our popular understanding of the history of science, its social, global and indeed colonial character, must be brought to the fore. Is this sufficient to achieve “decolonisation” in the sciences, as some have called for? At present, there is a lot of debate over how scientific decolonisation can and should be carried out, but current discourse can be broadly split into two camps.

On one view, decolonisation in the sciences might take the form of “Science must fall”. Inspired by the #RhodesMustFall campaign, this was first proposed by students at the University of Cape Town. The thought process behind “Science must fall” is that current scientific knowledge is an entirely Western and thereby colonial entity, a product of Western modernity.

A major challenge to this approach, however, is that the world is already struggling with movements that mobilise distrust towards scientific knowledge, which are becoming increasingly vocal all over the world—and most of these movements are far from anti-colonial in their practice! While the institution of science is heavily shaped by colonialism and imperialism, the scientific knowledge we have accrued thus far is of great value to human society today. This is especially so, when considering that one of the most disruptive pandemics in history is far from being completely over, and anthropogenic climate change is increasingly becoming a threat that we cannot avoid; both of which disproportionately endanger communities in the Global South. Yet, as the past few years, and in particular the past year, have shown, anti-vaccination and climate change non-believers have grown in number and become more vocal, casting doubt on the validity of empirical data conducted over the years.  Therefore, an abolitionist movement like “Science must fall” runs the risk of being hijacked by nationalists, religious fundamentalists and other rightwing movements, who might use the pretext of “decolonisation” to push forth their own reactionary agenda.

Others have proposed another way to decolonise the sciences; rather than abolishing existing scientific institutions and reconstructing them from scratch, this process would be relatively slower and involve a step-by-step reformation of these institutions into more cosmopolitan and inclusive ones.

Several academics and academic institutions have taken steps in this direction of decolonisation, particularly in wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, which gained huge momentum globally last year. Diversity statements have been issued, campaigns highlighting women and racialised individuals in STEM have been initiated, and funding has been allocated to diversity and inclusion efforts and racialised academics. However, there is an underlying concern that most of the efforts undertaken thus far may be rather tokenistic in nature, and that little is being done to address deeper, structural and material issues. For if the sciences are to be successfully decolonised, it cannot be achieved by simply removing a statue or a plaque, or by stating that a prominent scientist was also complicit in colonialism and imperialism.

Science at the Crossroads

Science is at a crossroads. On one hand, in this post-truth era, scientists increasingly find themselves having to defend against scientific misinformation and pseudoscience. Yet, at the same time, it is evident that science cannot simply be assumed to be a bastion of objectivity and universality when it is still dominated by Eurocentric narratives and biases shaped by imperialism and colonialism. Finding the right way to reform the sciences is difficult and these solutions cannot be implemented instantly. But what is clear is this: that the sciences, now more than ever, need to finally reckon with their past, so that their present and future can be better informed.

A note on terms: In this article we use the term “racialisation” rather than “people of colour” or “ethnic minorities.” We do so because racialisation captures the process by which certain people were characterised as deviating from whiteness, which was considered the norm. Additionally, we refer to scientific “practices” rather than to “discoveries” because we can all agree that people involved in doing science are practising—they perform manual and intellectual labour. Discoveries, instead, are trickier to pin down. Throughout the history of the sciences, certain events, experiments, and episodes have been defined by society as “discoveries” only after they take place.

Gianamar Giovanetti-Singh, is a third-year PhD student at St Edmund’s College studying the History of Science. Rory Kent is a third-year PhD student at King's College studying Philosophy of Science. Swathi Nachiar Manivannan is a recent Natural Sciences (Genetics) graduate from Homerton College.