'First, I'll need tenure. And a big research grant. Also access to a lab and five graduate students — at least three of them Chinese.'
- Professor Ogden Wernstrom, Physicist
Those are Professor Ogden Wernstrom’s demands when asked to save the Earth from a giant garbage ball approaching through space in the Futurama episode, A Big Piece of Garbage. Portrayed as an obvious antagonist, Wernstrom seems greedy and exclusively concerned with his own career advancement. He also seemingly regards grad students as just another commodity to further his own goals, with Chinese students as particularly valuable or useful assets.
This specific view on Chinese researchers as not much more than pricey pieces of high-tech equipment was provided by a cartoon villain 20 years ago, but it arguably still falls into the questionable category of 'it’s funny because it’s true': it indeed resonates with prejudices that extend beyond the Futurama universe and into real-world academic discourse.
One place where similar views on 'non-western' researchers can be found is the discourse on scientific misconduct. High-profile scandals of scientific fraud and plagiarism regularly make the news headlines, and the frequency, causes and consequences of scientific misconduct are at the centre of much academic and public speculation. Whenever we talk about the presumed causes of deviance, we make deeply normative claims about the allocation of responsibility and blame. Much more than just the goal and result of neutral scientific inquiry, these causal explanations are a powerful mechanism of social exclusion, constructing a fault line between an ‘us’, who value and live by the rules of the community, and a somehow inferior ‘them’, who break the rules.
In the Identities article, 'Science and its Others: examining the discourse about scientific misconduct through a postcolonial lens', I analyse 31 expert interviews with people responsible for handling scientific misconduct cases at universities, journals and other academic organisations and show that violations of research integrity are frequently blamed on so-called foreign scientific cultures that allegedly are more prone to misconduct. Researchers from those 'foreign' cultures are characterised in two different ways in those causal stories: at times they are depicted as backwards, uncivilised and uneducated; and their knowledge production is seen as generally inferior to western science. Such a depiction draws heavily on well-established themes of Eurocentric knowledge.
However, at other times, especially with regard to Chinese researchers, they are characterised as advanced, highly intelligent and productive, yet lacking a moral consciousness. In comparison to the idealised 'western' researcher, they appear almost cyborg-like: highly efficient, technologically advanced and rational, but also immoral, emotionally cold and ultimately interchangeable with one another. Such views are also consistent with established stereotypes of Asians as a hypersuccessful 'model minority' that pose 'implicit threats to the upward mobility of others' (Cardozo & Subramaniam 2013).
Of course, a factor like 'academic culture' will probably have an influence on researchers’ (deviant) behaviour. This example, however, shows that the way this 'culture' is currently constructed and discussed leans heavily on stereotypes and reproduces exclusions already present in the scientific community. As such, it doesn’t speak much about the actual working conditions of Chinese (or Mexican, or Egyptian, or Russian) researchers, but says a lot about the collective imaginary of 'western' academia. Apparently, it still looks a lot like Wernstrom’s ideal scientific life, where the advancement of white (male) researchers counts more than the fate of the rest of the world.
Cardozo, K. & B. Subramaniam. 2013. Assembling Asian/American naturecultures: Orientalism and invited invasions. Journal of Asian American Studies 16: 1–23.
Blog post by Felicitas Hesselmann, German Centre for Higher Education Research and Science Studies, and Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, Germany
Read the full article: Hesselmann, Felicitas. Science and its Others: examining the discourse about scientific misconduct through a postcolonial lens. Identities: Global Studies in Culture and Power. DOI: 10.1080/1070289X.2018.1538065