How cross-cultural is scientific research?

I apologize for the slow blogging. I've been under the weather this weekend, and what energy I could muster went to more pressing things. Like patching an unfortunate hole in the kitchen wall from when the doorstop failed.

I also had some minor paperwork. I am being contracted to work remotely for a University in another state, and they sent along a question about what I've done "to foster multicultural understanding and cultural competence?"

While penning the obligatory bland response about international research and my old Peace Corps days, it occurred to me that many scientists who have to fill these things out can fall back on the inevitable international collaborations that pop up in a globalized scientific network. There's nothing wrong with that, of course, but it's one of those small cheats that meets the letter but not the spirit of the question.

When I'm at a conference with researchers from around the world, I don't feel like I'm doing anything cross-cultural. Even when we speak different languages, the overwhelming feeling is that I'm at home among my people. Anyone who can talk for hours about the taxonomy of Pheidole, or collecting techniques for leaf litter arthropods, or the latest phylogenetic algorithms, fundamentally belongs to the same culture regardless of whether they came to it from English, or Portuguese, or Mandarin.

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I wish I had the bravery to complete forms like this honestly (in other words, you define what you mean by cultural competence, how you measure it; and I'll answer your ignorant questions).

As a biologist you have probably categorised and labelled species/organisms etc - some people think you can categorise and label human beings by nationality/race/ethnicity in the same way. So because someone who lives 2 miles away from me happens to be across a political border they behave/react in a different way?

For an academic perspective on the dangers of "culturism" you only need to see that by using blandly "culture" as a by word we promote difference, and where difference is promoted, value judgements (i.e. better/worse) are encouraged - those involved in promoting "diversity" are often inadvertently promoting prejudice.

"cultural competence" is a meaningless phrase, especially when you ask for examples of the competencies. Traits such as "flexible behaviour", "tolerance" etc are admirable, but we are not persistent in the applicability of them. In a biological context we can ask: are snakes aggressive towards humans? The answer is always yes and no. Even an earthworm may exhibit aggressive traits if provoked (though i'd prefer a bit from an earthworm than a viper). I am tolerant with clients, but much less tolerant when my daughter comes home later!

If you are secure in your position, and have nothing to fear from the authorities, ask them to define their cultural competencies, taking into account post modernist objections!

Good luck!

Indeed, science is (or has) its own culture. This may mean that many scientists (those who "have lives" outside their work) are themselves multicultural, living in a scientific culture part of the time and in their neighborhood, family, hobby, religious, etc. cultures at other times.