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Is ‘Fear’ Driving Bias in Environmental Scholarship?

Researchers explore the need for conservationists to address negative human histories in their research

by Yale University
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The term “landscapes of fear” is well established in the field of ecology. Traditionally, it refers to how the risk of predation affects animal behavior and, in turn, the ecosystems in which they live. Researchers including Oswald Schmitz, Oastler Professor of Population and Community Ecology at Yale School of the Environment (YSE), have ventured deep into this concept to understand how fear affects key ecosystem functions like decomposition and carbon cycling.

But when the lens is turned, what role does “fear” play on a researcher.

A recent paper published in BioScience, led by YSE PhD student Gabriel Gadsden, proposes a new take on the concept: “social-ecological landscapes of fear.” The hypothesis, Gadsden explains, is that certain places hold legacies derived from historical events that create “identity bias,” leading to unsatisfactory lines of inquiry that affect the success of conservation goals.

“Much like animals will not use certain spaces because of risk of predation or reduction of resource uses, people are afraid of certain landscapes, and our discipline is lacking a bit because of it.” says Gadsden, who works in the Applied Wildlife Ecology (AWE) lab of Dr. Nyeema Harris, Knobloch Family Associate Professor of Wildlife and Land Conservation and senior author of the paper. 

The authors argue that few landscapes are entirely associated with positive identities. The recent history of globalization, modernization, and colonization—and the racism, exploitation, and displacement there within—underscores the necessity to understand how our ecological and evolutionary processes have been impacted, they say.

"As we explore locations for new projects, we are forced to [grapple] with the identity of that place beyond its biodiversity. We need to know the political, economic, and historic context to design inclusive, culturally sensitive, and impactful science," Harris says.

As an example, the authors explain how housing discrimination has impacted environmental processes in urban environments, creating inequities within cities that are evident today. But Gadsden admits that using case studies to explain the concept would paint an incomplete picture.

“Place-based bias and research is not a three-part case study," he says. "It is historic and present, multi-scale, and includes multiple historical traumas of different peoples, from marine ecosystems to the tropics to the American West. There are often powers beyond our control that choose what we think of these spaces. It then affects our scholarship. I know I’m certainly not immune to it. But there are ways we can overcome our biases," Gadsden says.

To do so, the authors provide several recommendations. First, researchers need to recognize negative histories, from further education on the historical context to engaging in land acknowledgments. Then, researchers should include community perspectives when engaging in conservation work.

“In the context of geographies chosen for scientific inquiry, any semblance of fear that prohibits research must be acknowledged and then dissolved. For example, persistent cases of police violence that disproportionately result in the killing of Black people, be it in Minneapolis, Ferguson, or New York City, could result in less research in these locations by Black scholars because of the trauma held there. We recognize building effective partnerships as one strategy to combat fears researchers may have working in a place," Harris says.

The authors also suggest “co-creation”—collaboration with local environmental justice and political ecology scholars.

“I hope these ideas broaden the scope of science into geographic spaces that have not been historically investigated and, in areas that have been investigated, there are some retroactive questions about what may have been missed,” Gadsden says. “I don’t think we can just take a ‘business as usual’ approach to Western science and call it a day anymore. We need to be better, more intentional researchers.”

Gadsden says that Harris and the other researchers in her lab have already begun infusing these ideas into their work. “It challenges all of us and checks our biases. It’s providing a thought-provoking framework that has been very beneficial,” he says.

- This press release was originally published on the Yale University website