Waterloo tackles antagonism in academia one talk at a time

The second in the series centered a dialogue on antagonistic responses to science and technology

By Darren McAlmont University Relations

Waterloo researchers are renowned for transforming societies, economies, technologies, sustainability and health for humanity to thrive in our complex future. However, scholars in many fields have experienced hostile responses to their work. This is particularly true for those whose focus is on social justice scholarship that focuses on discrimination based on gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity and religion. Also impacted are science and technology research; health and vaccine research, and environment, sustainability and climate change research.

On November 29, 2023, the Faculty of Arts in collaboration with the Office of Research hosted the second of four panel discussions of the series, "Antagonism and Intimidation in Academia." Professor Suzan Ilcan, University Research Chair and advisor on interdisciplinary research, is the lead organizer of the panel series.

In his opening remarks, Chris Houser, dean, Faculty of Science, reflected on encountering antagonism very early on in his career as a coastal scientist to the point where it became difficult to give public talks and still secure state funding for research related to climate change and sea level rise.

"At a previous institution, I had to have a trigger warning in my class because I was going to teach the course from a scientific perspective. Those who needed the warning are most likely the anti-science antagonists of today," he recalled. "It is for this reason that this series is so important."

Dr. Charmaine B. Dean, vice-president, Research and International also pointed out the hostility faced by many science and technology scholars for the purpose of silencing them. "During the pandemic we saw a troubling backlash against scientific expertise. With the rise of generative AI, questions are also being raised about the impact of fast-moving technological advancements on society," she said. "The panel discussed this climate of anxiety and mistrust, the effects of social media, and how critical it is to foster inclusive and respectful discourse."

The expert panel was comprised of Dr. Trevor C. Charles, professor of biology and director of Waterloo Centre for Microbial Research, Dr. Lai-Tze Fan, assistant professor in the Department of Sociology and Legal Studies, Dr. Kelly Grindrod, associate professor in the School of Pharmacy and Dr. Maura R. Grossman, research professor in the School of Computer Science and the School of Public Health Sciences. The discussion was moderated by Kirsten Müller, professor and chair, Department of Biology.

Dr. Grindrod opened her conversation by first leaning into her skepticism of participating in the talk due to the overwhelming antagonistic responses she received for doing her work during the pandemic. "I actually didn’t know if I wanted to give this talk today, and I still don’t know how I feel about it, if I’m honest," she said.

Dr. Grindrod told the story of serving in a very visible profile as a liaison between public health experts and pharmacies in Waterloo region, and being at the table where decisions were made on who should be given the vaccine and when. This opened the floodgates of voicemails, emails and social media messages from strangers who were accusing her of killing children.

"So, I actually just stopped checking my voicemail...I haven’t checked it in years at this point. I don’t use Twitter. I don’t actually like checking my mailbox at work," she said.

When she took the podium, Dr. Grossman, too, shared her story of how the door to her office was vandalized just a year and a half ago. "It was covered in swastikas and hateful words," she said. Dr. Grossman also shared the story of another antagonistic response to her work where she was compelled to removed readings from a course outline due to opposing views of students in the class.

"To this day, I still struggle with understanding why that reading or topic of discussion was so unacceptable for our classroom, and why it was so triggering. To me, it was simply a cautionary tale about not being too quick to judge people or things by physical appearances, but I no longer cover that material in my class" she said. Dr. Grossman gave the audience pause to think when she asked, "Was that the right decision or was that an assault on freedom of speech?"

Dr. Fan steered the conversation in a different direction when she took the podium to discuss antagonisms and anxieties around AI and its development. She acknowledged the anxieties around labor replacement and the automation of certain white-collar jobs like writers and artists, she but invited the audience to also consider the "unseen" jobs that AI has started to replace like servers at restaurants and self-check-out machines.

She emphasized the problems of placing gendered or ableist values on one set of jobs over others and how that leads to the same set of values being put into how we design AI, and this ultimately creates new sets of discriminatory technology.

Dr. Charles centered the interactive conversation with the audience on the misinformation that surrounds food. He challenged the widespread notion that GMO produced food is bad. "If you haven’t been to a greenhouse before, it’s truly an amazing experience, but there’s no soil in those greenhouses. Everything is hydroponic and how it gets the plants exactly what they need is backed by amazing technology in the production of food," he said.

The next talk in the series is scheduled for 27 February 2024, which will focus on health research in the academy.