By HANS BADER
The National Science Foundation released another monthly installment of records about federal policy toward indigenous knowledge, which reveal a desire on the part of some to restrict the free flow of information. The records are found at this link.
Last December, the Biden administration released guidance designed to promote the use of indigenous knowledge and beliefs in federal agencies’ decisions, but also to give tribes more control over the public release of their indigenous knowledge.
In pages 3-4 of the most recent installment of records, a National Science Foundation grant reviewer urges the National Science Foundation to restrict “helicopter science” in which non-Native researchers collect data or knowledge in an area inhabited by natives without native consent, arguing that “The taking of Indigenous knowledge by settler scientists is unethical, antithetical to the mission of the NSF, and cannot and should not happen any longer.”
That NSF reviewer, Michelle LaRue of the University of Canterbury, writes, “I am writing to you as both an NSF grantee (awards #1744989 and #1543311) and also as a reviewer of NSF proposals to request greater oversight of proposal activities and award activities that ultimately result in “helicopter science” – the idea of western scientists traveling to a region, taking information, data, and analysing back in their home countries without including or acknowledging local communities or cultures….
“As you are likely aware, there are substantial efforts worldwide to decolonize science….
“The taking of Indigenous knowledge by settler scientists is unethical, antithetical to the mission of the NSF, and cannot and should not happen any longer. To this end, I am requesting that NSF take action by providing scrutiny to proposals and research activities that involve research on Indigenous lands, involving Indigenous communities, or about Indigenous cultures – in the same way other ethical considerations are made in the proposal process.”
This letter was forwarded by NSF official Karla Heidelberg to other NSF staff for their consideration. If the NSF were to adopt LaRue’s proposal, it could restrict scientific collection of information in the vicinity of indigenous populations, stunting the free flow of information and reducing the stock of knowledge.
This information-restrictive mindset is echoed in a March 4, 2022 “Dear Tribal Leader” letter from the White House, which states, “The Administration recognizes that the Federal Government should engage with ITEK [indigenous traditional ecological knowledge] only through relationships with Tribal Nations and knowledge holders.” (see page 72 of the most recent OSTP release).
It is also echoed in a source cited in a federal guidance document for tribal consultation, which says in in footnote 43 that “For Native American communities, the public release of or access to specialized information or knowledge — gathered with and without informed consent — can cause irreparable harm. . .Each community will understand and use the term ‘culturally sensitive’ differently…” (See page 38 of the most recent OSTP release, citing Protocols for Native American Archival Materials). This language is also found in footnote 54 of the Biden administration guidance on the use of indigenous knowledge released in December.
These records were released in response to a Freedom of Information lawsuit. When two federal agencies failed to respond to a Freedom of Information Act request about federal policy on indigenous knowledge, the Bader Family Foundation sued them in federal court, compelling the agencies to produce the records covered by that FOIA request. The two agencies sued — the National Science Foundation and the Office of Science and Technology Policy — began producing those records in monthly installments (such as this record and this one and this one).
Indigenous knowledge and beliefs can be useful, or they can be quackery or harmful superstition. Examples of harmful traditional beliefs include using cautery as a “remedy” for illnesses. Cautery “involves placing a heated metal object …. on the patient’s skin. The procedure is painful, burning the skin and leaving a permanent scar.” And it doesn’t cure the sick.
Despite the uneven quality of indigenous knowledge, the Guidance for Federal Departments and Agencies on Indigenous Knowledge issued by the Biden administration in December says that “Agencies should also include Indigenous Knowledge as an aspect of best available science,” and that “Indigenous Knowledge … may be used in HISA [Highly Influential Scientific Assessment] documents.”
Some tribal governments have asked the Biden administration to provide federal subsidies for tribal review of federal projects and for access to indigenous knowledge. They have also asked the administration to curb access to information under the Freedom of Information Act. (See this record, for example).
Hans Bader practices law in Washington, D.C. After studying economics and history at the University of Virginia and law at Harvard, he practiced civil-rights, international-trade, and constitutional law. He also once worked in the Education Department. Hans writes for CNSNews.com and has appeared on C-SPAN’s “Washington Journal.” This story first appeared in https://libertyunyielding.com