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Decolonising the immunology curriculum: starting to interrogate structural inequalities in science

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Conversations about racism and antiracism have been growing in recent years, amplified by the Black Lives Matter and ‘Why is my curriculum white?’ movements, the Rhodes Must Fall campaign and the toppling of the Colston statue in Bristol. Universities are responding by committing to decolonising their curricula to address the damaging legacies of colonialism, such as the dominance of White European thought and culture in education. In this article, Dr Bronwen Burton and Dr Caroline McKinnon discuss what they have learnt as they work to diversify the biomedical curricula at the University of Bristol, supported by a BSI Equality, Diversity and Inclusion activity grant.

Do we need to decolonise science?

Science has an ideal of objectivity, and perhaps at first it can be harder to see how to decolonise STEM subjects compared with the arts and social sciences subjects. Surely it is impossible to decolonise objective data? But science is shaped by people. Scientists are influenced by society, culture and politics; therefore, science is not apolitical. It has been used to underpin racist ideologies and to support imperialism.1 The views and biases of scientists, whether conscious or unconscious, affect the outcome of our work and the generation of knowledge, influencing how accurate or representative our work is.

We can see colonial legacies in contemporary science by observing cultural biases. Universities in the Global North remain dominant in world university rankings2 and English is the primary language for scientific publications,3 reinforcing long-held power dynamics. We see disparity in terms of who is funded, employed, celebrated and who sits on grant panels and editorial boards. The ‘gatekeepers of knowledge’ who shape the direction of research have arisen from privilege, while others have been marginalised (see the 'Examples of cultural bias in science' further down).

We also see bias in the knowledge we create. As one example, most people represented in genome-wide association studies (GWAS) are of European ancestry.11 This has implications for understanding disease risk, the development of targeted therapies and for informing public health policies. True decolonisation requires the removal of the structures on which our education and society are built; with this in mind, the process of diversifying can bring conversations on the impact of coloniality to the fore, highlighting overlooked figures and studies which would benefit our knowledge base. We must question the scientific canon to identify and prevent long-held inequalities so that scientific knowledge can represent and benefit all, equally.

Examples of cultural bias in science

  • BAME researchers and women are less likely to receive funding or receive lower awards: data from multiple funding bodies e.g. UKRI,4 Wellcome,5 CRUK6

  • BAME researchers in STEM are more likely to be on a fixed-term contract.7 They are also less likely to be professors, reflecting wider patterns across all academic disciplines in UK universities8 where e.g. only 0.6% of UK professors are Black

  • Bias towards the Global North and men is seen in the composition of editorial boards in science and medicine e.g. in the field of global health.9 Women are even underrepresented in the editorial boards of women’s health journals10

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Diversifying the curriculum

Diversifying our science curricula challenges us to question prioritised Eurocentric narratives, to empower silenced voices and to think about the wider context in which our knowledge has been built. An evidenced degree ‘awarding gap’ exists in the UK; advance HE data for 2019–2020 show that while 86% of White students in UK universities were awarded a 2:1/first, only 66.3% of Black students were. This is not due to the academic ability of these students, who enter university with the same grades as their White counterparts.13 Instead, systemic issues within UK universities, many of which are closely linked with the colonial past, are thought to disadvantage BAME students.14

Decolonising and diversifying the curriculum is one way to challenge this; diversifying is not just about what is taught, but also how it is taught, with consideration of who contributed to the work and where it was carried out.

‘It is vital that we do not perpetuate long-held inequalities in our teaching, and that we empower our students to think critically as they become the next generation of immunologists.’

The ‘Decolonising and diversifying the immunology curriculum’ project

In the summer of 2021, supported by a BSI Equality, Diversity and Inclusion activity grant (alongside in-house funding), we ran our first decolonising and diversifying project. Four undergraduate students were employed to review material for four Year 1 and Year 2 units with significant immunology content. Their brief was to identify opportunities to decolonise and diversify unit content and also highlight areas of good practice. Intersectionality is essential: we must consider sexism, ableism, classism, homophobia, and transphobia as well as ethnicity if our teaching is to be truly inclusive.

Students produced detailed reports (summarised below) which were shared with staff and discussed at a teaching committee meeting. Responses from staff have been positive, with thoughtful reflection and discussions leading to constructive changes in our curriculum. Feedback from undergraduates has been mixed, with some questioning the relevance of this work to a science degree, while others were very supportive of the work and sought to take further individual action.

Key themes identified

Global North bias

Students identified bias towards White cis men and the Global North in references, even when research subjects were in the Global South, and opportunities were missed to acknowledge overlooked scientists. “References and reading lists should be diverse, and contributions from minoritised groups or overlooked figures should be acknowledged.”

The use of language and images

A lack of diversity in skin tone in images (photographs or cartoons) was noted, and some use terminology which supported ideas of superiority/ dependency such as ‘developing world’, ‘founding fathers’ or ‘poor countries’. “Images and language should be chosen with care to avoid perpetuating inequalities/inaccuracies (default white) or negative stereotypes.”

Data bias

Data often represented White/ European/North American populations, e.g. GWAS or statistics about disease incidence. Binary genders were exclusively used e.g. in the context of genetics. “Research presented should be inclusive and diverse.”

Discuss problematic figures or practices

Opportunities were missed e.g. for discussion of HeLa cells – taken without consent from Henrietta Lacks, the historical context for the development of anti-malarials, or Biopiracy. “The wider context of research and problematic figures/practices should be acknowledged.”

Respect and highlight indigenous knowledge

Greater sensitivity could be shown towards indigenous knowledge and traditional medicine approaches. “Opportunities should be provided for wider discussion around the effects of colonialism on science and society, encouraging students to think critically to avoid reinforcing colonial or patriarchal narratives.”

Next steps

We have secured funding to expand this project and recruit more student partners to review further units. Decolonising leads from the three Biomedical Sciences schools are collaborating to study the understanding and attitudes towards decolonising and diversifying the curriculum and how these may change with time. We are in the process of seeking ethical approval for two surveys (staff and students), and for focus groups. University-level commitment to decolonising the curriculum has been important to enable this work (see the University’s recent unveiling of a statue of Henrietta Lacks), and we are fortunate to work with Decolonising Mentors – experts in the field who advise us on the direction of our work.

We are committed to maintaining momentum and discussion, aided by our Faculty Decolonising and Diversifying the Curriculum working group, who have since produced a booklet for staff which includes useful resources and tangible steps on how to start making changes to teaching content. Diversifying the curriculum has been embedded into existing academic structures; it is also a standing item on our Student-Staff Liaison Committee meetings, to ensure the open dialogue with students continues, to support what will be an ever-evolving process.

For science to attain the ideal of objectivity, we need to address the biases in contemporary science to make sure that knowledge represents all. It is vital that we do not perpetuate long-held inequalities in our teaching, and that we empower our students to think critically as they become the next generation of immunologists.

Dr Bronwen Burton, School of Cellular and Molecular Medicine, University of Bristol

Dr Caroline McKinnon, School of Biochemistry, University of Bristol
















Find out more

The BSI Equality, Diversity and Inclusion activity grants are competitive grants designed to help organisations and individuals fund activities and events that promote diversity and inclusion across the immunology community and the wider biomedical sciences. The next round for this grant scheme will open in April 2022. Find out more and watch this space.