Confronting structures of power in biophysical research

Type: Paper
Theme: Geographies of Access: Inclusion and Pathways
Sponsor Groups:
Organizers: Melanie Malone
Chairs: Melanie Malone

Call for Submissions


Numerous studies have now shown that systemic racism, social inequities, public health crises, and other societal issues are often reflected in the environment (Berland et al., 2015; McClintock, 2015; Pellow, 2016; Pulido, 2016; Schell et al., 2020). Even though the solutions to fix environmental issues are widely known (e.g. the precautionary principle, reducing pollution, setting limits on water withdraws, not using pesticides, reducing air emissions that contribute to climate change and health disparities), these issues persist because of power dynamics, politics, and inequalities that continually influence scientific findings and the way research is conducted. Scientific findings are often bent to serve political agendas (Sarewitz, 2004) rather than to address the environmental problems and injustices at hand, and much biophysical research on the environment is published as though the source(s) of the problem are unknown or cannot be directly addressed because of hegemonic and literal power structures. Scientists are often aware that they work in political environments and that their research will have political ramifications that they have to navigate in order to conduct their research and report their findings (500 Women Scientists Leadership, 2020). Furthermore, their recommendations, as well as how they conduct their research, who they conduct their research with, and what they eventually report, is often mired by hostile environments in which they work, and they have to be strategic about each step of the process. This is particularly true for researchers who are black, indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC), who not only have to navigate these complex situations in their research, but also continually fight for their right to do the research (Pew Research Center, 2018). But the need to do biophysical research that confronts these systems of power and politics is pressing. Paradoxically we are at a moment of unprecedented impacts from climate change, while we are also at a moment where the current U.S. administration has recently rolled back 100 environmental protections (Popovich et al., 2019) and humans have failed to meet any requirements to stop the destruction of the planet (Global Biodiversity Outlook, 2020).

The time to implement biophysical research that addresses critical theory and social and environmental justice is now. Current events and the state of the environment cannot simply be dismissed as a sacrifice we have to make for living in the time of the Anthropocene. A number of scholars (Chiapella et al., 2019; Cram, 2011; Lave et al., 2014; Malone & Polyakov, 2019; Saed, 2012; Schell et al., 2020) have published how power structures impact and influence the interpretations of biophysical research, and have opened the door to other researchers to be reflective about the interpretations of their data and how it can be used to push regulators and activists into improving the environment in equitable ways. This work entails biophysical research in soil science, geomorphology, urban ecology and wildlife, spatial GIS science, nuclear waste, contaminants, agriculture, and water, and engages with critical theories that draw from Critical Physical Geography, political ecology, neoliberalism, Marxism, and environmental justice among many others. Yet, more research needs to be done on how to navigate and understand the ways in which power influences biophysical research, as well as strategies for confronting it during research. Beyond the complex nature of doing research that integrates critical social theories and biophysical research, doing such research is challenging because of the social tensions that arise while doing it, as well the potential political ramifications of publishing research that provokes many, including stakeholders, municipal governments, and sometimes even the institutions in which we work.

This panel is interested in papers that address how to navigate and confront systems of power in biophysical research. It is especially interested in researchers whose work also involves those outside the academy (e.g. community partners, those involved in community science, stakeholder populations, and populations who have been marginalized). The panel will discuss strategies that researchers have used in order to do their research and tactics for successfully sharing their results in the face of adversity. Researchers from all disciplinary backgrounds are welcome and encouraged to participate.

Please send abstracts for this paper session to Melanie Malone at by October 18. We anticipate organizing one or more virtual and/or in-person sessions. Indicate in your submission if you plan to attend in person, virtually, or if you are still unsure.

After we notify you of your selection in this session, you must register and submit your official abstract to AAG prior to the deadline ( You must also send your PIN to Melanie Malone at

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