FIELD Outlook: Dr Dolors Armenteras

Advantages of cross fertilization between international researchers

When first asked to write this piece as an invited opinion to provide insights on equitable and anti-colonial field research, my first thought was that I had already given mine or at least a general idea about those things that matter for healthy global scientific collaborations. Then, I reflected for a second and remembered the imbalanced global reaction to that piece, where literally hundreds of colleagues from less wealthy countries felt in their skins and shared the sentiment of what was said. In contrast there was a clearly minor acknowledgement, support, or empathy from privileged colleagues, expressed either publicly or privately. It strikes me bad how something can be so seemingly obvious for many, and yet others still don’t get it. And we are talking about scientists, a community that is limited in numbers, but a priori, generous with society. Under the appalling pandemic current circumstances that are widening the already existing huge imbalances in this world, yet again I felt that there is still so much more space for talking about this and communicating the importance of clear guidelines, ethics & culture for global scientific collaboration. Today the emphasis is on field work, measurements, data and sample collection. I can say: a lot of things are out there to value but also a lot of room for improvement.

Indeed, since Humboldt times, researchers have had field sites across the world or often run data collection campaigns in places outside where they are based. Global problems require global solutions, right? And often there is a driving need to fill a gap, defined as such by wealthier countries, based on the alleged lack of capacity and technology in many others. The problem becomes not only that often the research is not based on the needs on the ground, but that when these well-equipped researchers go to these sites and leave without investing in human capacity e.g., training locals, communicating results, etc or do not leave much infrastructure in place. Still in many field sites occurs the extraction of samples or valuable specimens without the proper country permissions. It is a bit the never-ending extraction circle of old colonialism in place.

Let’s for a second think that you are not one of those that only seek to fulfill personal needs, that you are one of many that are practicing equitable partnership. I am sure you have realized the advantages of co-designing fieldwork from the beginning, so you tried to build a long-term trust relationship with people on the ground, all scientists, researchers, students, local communities. So, you have taken the advantage of being aware of when is the best time to conduct field work in the area and ecosystem you are studying, and you might already be in contact with the best local experts. You are also aware of when there is a national holiday or any cultural celebration that is important for your colleagues, you are aware of the fair budget need and the safety regulations that need to be in place for all covered by the project. You have been aware of the available infrastructure and the need to strengthen what is not available, from a water pump to a boat engine or a solar powered battery and you budgeted for it. In fact, you might actually have invited some of the colleagues to update their training on certain skills or are planning to do one yourself in the field before starting any work. You are one of those that support and encourage professionals to share their work and experiences using a non-native language. You will also support and encourage the translation of results yielded by collaborative work in the native language of the different participants. This will make information accessible for local communities and researchers that do not dominate non-native languages. Socialize and communicate research results is pivotal for local communities. Encourage this practice not only to keep obtaining further funding, but to empower local communities. They deserve explanations that help to understand their multiple contexts, or they have the right to contest any of your positions or results. Further, it is so important how the information is communicated to local communities to ensure that what is generated contributes to local capacities, that often you will have to think beyond your comfort zone. An article or any wordy text of a given topic, might not be the most appropriate tool for engaging with rural communities where sometimes there is still low literacy rates. So, guess who can be your best ally? Your local partners.

One thing to really avoid is to offer “covering the costs” to cover field work expenses when you are asking researchers to guide you to the most remote areas and sampling collection services. They deserve a fair salary to cover their needs, as anybody back home, to account for all the work and knowledge they are putting into the research. If you work with students, keep in mind they are neither servants nor robots; they deserve to be treated well and given credit for their work. I came across recently to an article claiming to acknowledge authorship for data collectors, perhaps a step in the right direction if it does not stay as a permanent solution to keep locals working to only produce data for others to analyze and decide how that data will be used to influence science and decision making. And never forget that you will often meet trained researchers who have the ability also to generate more contributions to the research process that go beyond collecting data and processing samples. Perhaps discussing several research outcomes that can be led by both sides? Perhaps, due to the obstacles and limited infrastructure and support that locals have, it might take longer for those papers or products that are locally lead, but it will be certainly worthy and will help build a long-term collaboration.

Yes, right, cross-fertilization. I believe it can be a pathway to excellent collaborations and collective impact if we understand it as a mutual exchange that enhances understanding or produces something beneficial for all. So, when designing your next field campaign in a country other than where you are affiliated or if you are a scientist hosting a colleague from overseas, stop for a second and look back to these reflections. In case of doubt, always ask others about their experiences and their opinions.