Yes, but is it significant?

wordl science

Whenever you write a grant or ask for a promotion in an academic setting, you’re required to justify the significance of your research.

Problem is, most of us are so embroiled in our work that we don’t question it: we don’t see it through an outsider’s lens.

And we entwine our work with our individuality and self-worth.

They are difficult to separate.

Justification requires nimbleness, particularly for American Indians raised with traditional values that frown on self-promotion.

Shining the light on yourself is discouraged.

I struggle with the task of convincing others that what I do is significant.

The heart of my work in science communication is to show that science is rife with human values.

In traditional Western science, we try to separate the practice of science from our beliefs.

But Native scientists acknowledge that our values, beliefs, morals and faiths are lock-step with practice.

You will find words in English that separate science from art, religion from physics. We wrap our disciplines into discrete packages.

But in many indigenous languages there is no word for science, no word for religion.

Native belief systems wrap together science with faith, belief with practice.

“I was doing good science,” is the comment a geneticist made when the Havasupai sued scientists for failing to fully disclose their reasons for studying tribal members’ blood.

The comment reveals the disjuncture between “doing science” (science as a verb) and the human values that underpin science—which the geneticist ignores.

I argue that the scientist’s values aren’t absent. Rather, they are hidden from view.

The Havasupai willingly donated blood to university scientists interested in studying diseases—such as diabetes—with the understanding that the research would help address Indian health issues.

Tribal members later learned their blood samples were used for a range of investigations, including research into genetic linkages to ancestral origins—for which the Havasupai said they never gave their permission.

So when granting agencies ask me how my work is significant, I try to convince them that when we talk about science—in newspapers, textbooks, movies, speeches and novels—we treat it deferentially.

We genuflect before the altar of science with the faith that pure reason and empiricism will save the day.

But science is just one additional lens we use to view our world, and it is hardly value-free.

The geneticist who was “doing good science” argues that the doing—the method of science—somehow justifies the information gleaned from her research.

But the practice of science is more than method, and folks who work in Native Science argue that the context and setting of scientific work is paramount.

What’s significant?

It’s the peeling back of the assumptions of scientific investigations to unsheathe the layer of values that impact empirical thought and process.

It’s the acknowledgment that we cannot separate science from values, despite the mountain of everyday discourse that places science as the apex of discovery.

My journey is to unpack scientific discourse that impacts American Indian concerns.

My task is to show the myriad avenues where meanings emerge.

Image from the Worldwide Indigenous Science Network at



About Cynthia Coleman Emery

Professor and researcher at Portland State University who studies science communication, particularly issues that impact American Indians. Dr. Coleman is an enrolled citizen of the Osage Nation.
This entry was posted in american indian, authenticity, framing, Indian, journalism, Native Science, science, science communication, writing and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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