An ethical blind spot in the natural sciences

2021-05-31

Imagine this – you go to your local park in Europe (or North America) and you take pictures of, and with, random children. Then, without the child’s or their guardian’s consent, you post those picture online for the world to see with captions like “these kids stole my heart [heart emoji]”. This would be unacceptable, right? Then, why is it acceptable to pose with black or brown kids when in the Global South?

You’re probably wondering – what does this have to with science? I used the small example above to be provocative but also to illustrate power dynamics between visiting scientists from the Global North and locals in the Global South who are not afforded a basic right to privacy. A key problem, which I will get into a little later in this post, is the myth of “objectivity” in which some scientists either consciously or unconsciously ignore the existence of people when collecting data in the Global South. We need to realize that in many scientific disciplines research is conducted where people live. And wherever people live, they deserve dignity and respect, and to be treated on equal footing.

Indeed, some disciplines such as cultural anthropology are better adept at recognizing power imbalances than others due to decades of field research on human society and mistakes learnt from earlier work. Although natural scientists conduct field research that is often not directly about people but their field sites, for example climate stations, flux towers, geological formations, or bird colonies, are frequently located where people live. Yet, there is a lack of awareness of the power dynamic between the scientists themselves and the local community where the research is being conducted.

At this point, some readers may be thinking, “I don’t study people, I study the natural world. This is irrelevant!” This may be correct, but it’s also where the problem lies. The most common defense is that because scientists are conducting “objective” (i.e. quantitative) research on the natural world, they are somehow neutral observers who are disconnected from their surroundings. They are “collecting data to conduct science” as if nothing else happens outside this paradigm. No local partners, no logistical operations, and the field site is in no one’s home territory. Essentially, they are on the Moon (or Mars). However, this way of thinking in the Global North is not an accident. It’s by design.

As science historian Staffan Muller-Wille said, “science just as any other cultural product is made by humans with limited observational and rational capacities”. This implies that we cannot hide behind the façade of “objectivity” and ignore the circumstances that have led to where we are now, which is a stark imbalance in scientific research between the Global North and Global South. If you look back at how knowledge in certain disciplines was produced, you will realize that colonialism and scientific research have been intertwined. Over time, colonial attitudes become ingrained, leading to research collaborations that are inherently unequal and are sustained by “parachute research”.

Several suggestions have recently been put forward to remedy this imbalance and concrete steps have been outlined elsewhere (see for example here, here, and here, but a useful first step is the recognition  that the problem exists. This is usually where disagreements arise because recognizing that there is a problem means that the status quo needs to change and people are often resistant to changing the way they’ve always conducted science.

My own field of geospatial science is not immune from what’s been mentioned so far. The characterization of the land surface often requires field measurements to train land-cover and land-use models because satellite observations alone are often inadequate in complex landscapes. In this discipline, as with many others, “parachute research” routinely occurs in which local partners are dependent on expertise from the Global North. Although local partners are usually the ones that collect field data and maintain the equipment, the final cleaned and processed data product is often not shared with them because it is used to churn out papers (without their co-authorship, of course) that boost the careers of Global North researchers.

There are a couple of obvious ways we can assist our local partners and at the same time empower local communities. First, we can include them in ongoing discussions pertaining to the data collection and not just during the final stage when they are told where and what to collect. Second, once the data is collected, the final product needs to be shared with local partners or published as a data paper with them as co-authors. Third, they should be trained on the latest tools that are used in the discipline. There should be a real effort in transferring knowledge to local partners and not in the form of token seminars that do not result in technical enhancement. Fourth, they should be co-authors on papers where they have contributed their expertise in discussions during the drafting stage.

In the end, having a large pool of expertise is beneficial for everyone. It will reduce “parachute research” because local partners will possess the capacity to conduct experiments. It will also mean that expertise will remain in the Global South and can be locally transferred to help solve local problems without reliance on external “saviors”.