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Follow the science? Feds mull research veto for indigenous groups, using religion as science

FOIA production shows National Science Foundation quickly discussed reviewer's broadside against enabling "settler scientists." Former fed warns against agencies considering "quackery" such as cautery in science policy.

Published: December 8, 2023 11:00pm

Updated: December 9, 2023 11:38am

The Biden administration is considering giving indigenous groups veto power over academic research while including their religious beliefs in scientific policymaking and warning scientists against "disrespecting" indigenous spirits, according to public records productions.

The ongoing document dumps from the National Science Foundation and White House Office of Science and Technology Policy were prompted by a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit spearheaded by a former Trump administration Department of Education lawyer.

Hans Bader, through his family foundation, also has ongoing FOIA suits against his former employer for how it developed a proposal that would allegedly "gut" a charter-school program and the State Department for details behind its funding of an anti-disinformation group.

Bader's interest was piqued by OSTP's year-ago guidance on "indigenous knowledge," which it called an "important" contribution to "the scientific, technical, social, and economic advancements of the United States and our collective understanding of the natural world." 

The office, which leads interagency efforts to "develop and implement sound science and technology policies and budgets," called on agencies to include indigenous knowledge "as an aspect of best available science" and said it "can be relevant to and may be used" in documents known as highly influential scientific assessments.

Indigenous knowledge includes "useful" information as well as "quackery or harmful superstition" such as cautery, Bader wrote in an essay for Liberty Unyielding on the latest production this week.

The historically Middle Eastern healing practice places a "heated metal object" on the skin to "tighten" nerves and muscles and, in Saudi Arabia, "chase malevolent spirits causing emotional or physical illness out of the body," but leaves a "permanent scar," according to the Encyclopedia on Religion.

The feds resisted Bader's FOIA requests, prompting litigation this spring. Bader started posting the resulting NSF and OSTP productions in August, through the fall and again this week.

The documents reflect the reverential and highly deferential treatment of indigenous cultures, beliefs and practices by governments and academia, such as "land acknowledgements" that open events by recognizing the historic local tribal presence. The Democratic Party's 2020 platform opens with a land acknowledgment.

Such treatment occasionally prompts academic freedom disputes, as when the University of Washington censored a professor's syllabus for denying the campus sat on tribal land and created a "shadow section" of his course to bleed his enrollment.

UW is currently trying to dismiss the resulting First Amendment lawsuit by Stuart Reges, and House Oversight Committee Republicans brought up the case with Education Secretary Miguel Cardona last year.

Anthropologist Elizabeth Weiss settled her First Amendment lawsuit this summer alleging retaliation by San Jose State University for her vocal stance against "reburial of skeletal remains presumed to be affiliated with Native Americans." 

The settlement agreement let Weiss keep her faculty position for the 2023-2024 academic year while immediately departing for a fellowship with Heterodox Academy. The viewpoint diversity membership group also rescued her panel discussion on anthropology and biological sex when the annual North American anthropologists' conference canceled it as transphobic.

The reverence for indigenous religion goes beyond OSTP and NSF. The U.S. Geological Survey hosted a spring webinar on "Incorporating Indigenous Knowledges into Federal Research and Management," spotted by the Washington Free Beacon in September.

It featured Melonee Montano, the traditional ecological knowledge outreach specialist for the Great Lakes Indian Fish & Wildlife Commission and member of the Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa.

"When you ask for knowledge and you take it and use it in a way that you didn't intend or you misuse it, you're disrespecting" the giver, their teachers and "those spirits that may have brought that knowledge to them through a dream," Montano said. "The damages may be unseen at times" but "can be huge and have a major ripple effect throughout time."

NSF's most recent production to Bader, on Nov. 30, shows the independent federal agency seriously considering a plea from a New Zealand-based grantee and reviewer two years ago to crack down on "helicopter science" by "settler scientists" in proposals and awards and join "substantial efforts worldwide to decolonize science."

The University of Canterbury's Michelle LaRue, who also has an appointment at the University of Minnesota, referred to a proposal she reviewed that might involve the "proposed unintentional taking of samples or data from Indigenous communities," which her review already flagged.

She complained that another NSF-funded project published in Nature that found "black carbon increased after Māori arrival in New Zealand," based on Antarctic ice core samples, did not include "Māori consultation, context, commentary, or invitation to provide guidance" even though the indigenous group discovered the continent "more than 1,000 years before Europeans."

The failure to "adhere to ethical standards of inclusion and respect among" indigenous cultures is no less excusable than using "the wrong statistical test for your data," LaRue said. NSF must scrutinize "proposals and research activities that involve research on Indigenous lands, involving Indigenous communities, or about Indigenous cultures."

Thirty-two minutes later, then-program Director Karla Heidelberg shared the letter with her NSF colleagues, asking for "more guidance" before responding to LaRue, with whom she has a "good working relationship."

NSF spokesperson Cassandra Eichner declined to comment "at this time" Friday when asked how Heidelberg, now at the University of Southern California, responded to LaRue or NSF's broader response to her proposals.

Adopting LaRue's proposal "could restrict scientific collection of information in the vicinity of indigenous populations, stunting the free flow of information and reducing the stock of knowledge," Bader wrote in the essay. 

He also pointed to a March 4, 2022 "Dear Tribal Leader" letter from the White House, included in an OSTP production Nov. 7, which assures recipients that "the Federal Government should engage with ITEK [indigenous traditional ecological knowledge] only through relationships with Tribal Nations and knowledge holders." 

The sentence is reproduced in an alert by the NSF-supported Arctic Research Consortium of the United States for an upcoming "public listening session" days later.

In OSTP guidance marked "Draft: For Tribal Consultation" from the same production, the office warns that "Tribes and Indigenous Peoples may possess Indigenous Knowledge that is sensitive, sacred, or belongs to certain families or clans" and asks agency heads to work to proactively address their concerns. 

A footnote says "the public release of or access to specialized information or knowledge – gathered with and without informed consent – can cause irreparable harm," quoting from the Protocols for Native American Archival Materials devised in 2006 by participants representing "fifteen Native American, First Nation, and Aboriginal communities."