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Reflecting on unbalanced systems of knowledge production at the SVRI Forum 2022

Written by Kimberly Wu 

After a panel discussion at the SVRI Forum 2022, I reflect on the questions posed by the session, and make connections to my current experience as a doctoral student in the global north studying public health.  

While attending my first SVRI Forum, I was struck by the universality of the themes highlighted in the panel facilitated by Pontso Mafethe of the African Women’s Development Fund. The discussion was a rich discourse around the question of power, control, and decolonizing global health research with speakers talking about their unique experiences from their respective regions of the world. What struck me is the relevance of these discussions going beyond global health research. To get to the heart of how high-income countries [1] serve as gatekeepers for knowledge generation (through setting and driving research priorities), we must question assumptions of what drives research, what constitutes research, and how research can be conducted at all levels of academia and within the research community.

The speakers highlighted several points for consideration- a first set centered around dissecting the ethical principles that motivate research. For one, what can researchers and members of research communities commit to in consistently analyzing the system of knowledge production that we are all contributing towards? Furthermore, what are the implications of confronting the colonial legacies that underlie many of these systems that so many of us have been indoctrinated into and accept based on a façade of neutrality and objectivity?

As an American doctoral student training in the global north, it is easy for me to forget that the “standards” set within our institutions have their origins in othering and exploiting marginalized populations. If the goal of research and science is to better understand the world around us, to identify paths for addressing real problems, we must recognize that there must be new standards undergirding our research approaches and methodologies. Research integrating decolonizing methodologies, for instance, in the United States, highlights the progress made by Indigenous and Native researchers navigating the tensions and boundaries of the different sets of ethical criteria between Western and Indigenous communities [2]. Therefore, a potential pathway to confronting the ever-gnawing question of “who owns research/ knowledge?” might be to broaden our criteria of who is included as “experts,” and expand our vision to include skills that better reflect the application of research. For instance, the work of the Community Health Workers Initiative at the University of New Mexico, raises the importance of outreach, health, and financial literacy education, and supporting community residents in navigating food, housing, and healthcare are all crucial skills to advance the goals of public health and wellbeing.

Another set of discussion points from the panel emerged around identifying action and opportunities for intervening and challenging the existing systems of knowledge production. The question of reconceptualizing the competitive nature of prevalent grant-making processes sparked a dialogue where speakers raised the barriers for maintaining sustainable partnerships given the competitive nature of seeking and applying for grants. In my own grant writing training, I felt the pressure of having to present the most scientifically innovative and interesting ideas that had to be uniquely my own. In the real world, researchers write and put together grants in partnership with others. How much more beneficial would it be to my own training if as students we were exposed to tools and resources that reflect this collaborative approach to grant-seeking for research?

Ultimately, the panelists left me with more questions than answers. For one, what other collaborative goals and skills could emerge if we adopted a humble and consultative spirit into how research is taught, from college classrooms to public forums? What if as researchers, students, or even simply as individuals, we could recognize our own contributions to a larger process of knowledge generation and collective  learning exchange? It is encouraging to know that there are alternative models and practices currently underway. One example that was shared during the panel is the Global Shared Research Agenda (GSRA) developed in partnership between SVRI and the Equality Institute (EQI), along with other collaborators. Adapted from the Child Health and Nutrition Research Initiative (CHNRI), the GSRA utilized a participatory methodology that included participation from over 500 practitioners involved in work that addresses violence against women from around the world to contribute to a set of research priorities needed for progress in this field.

The panelists’ discussion did leave me thinking more about my role and about the type of research to focus on. For one, I was frustrated with the contradiction of our literal academic “paywalls” that bar access to information by those historically marginalized, and who are also often the subject of these articles. I recognize the role that formal research institutions can play in encouraging new learning within the “scientific community”, and I also believe that more can be accomplished if academia invests in initiatives that are relevant to the queries and needs of impacted communities and those with direct experiences. Growing interests and efforts in projects of citizen science and participatory action research demonstrate the ways in which research concepts, skills, and tools can be decentralized from academia, applied, and transformed into learning opportunities that explore solutions to existing collective concerns. Furthermore, it is clear that the capacity for change will come with embracing the generative tensions and contradictions of how power is divided and carved out within the academic ecosystem. All of this will require herculean effort on the part of individuals and collectives associated with academic institutions.

We wrapped the session without proper time for questions and comments from the audience, an ironic practice noted by an audience member given our earlier discussions regarding the importance of hearing from beyond the conventional “experts” in the room. The path towards healing from epistemological erasure and unbalanced systems of knowledge domination will not be a simple road, and yet, it is what is required from us with access to academic institutions to generate more equitable learning communities.

References

1. As highlighted in a blog post from the World Bank, is it still relevant to continue adopting the terms “low income” or “high income” as forms of classification? Link to the blog post: https://datatopics.worldbank.org/world-development-indicators/stories/the-classification-of-countries-by-income.html

2. Tuck, E. (2013). Commentary: Decolonizing Methodologies 15 years later. AlterNative: An International Journal of Indigenous Peoples, 9(4), 365–372. https://doi.org/10.1177/117718011300900407 

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