The Problem With ‘Parachute Science’

7:41 minutes

a vibrant colorful coral reef with an assortment of fish swimming around
A coral reef off North Sulawesi, Indonesia. Credit: Shutterstock

“Parachute science” is a term describing how researchers sometimes drop down from an ivory tower in the wealthy Western world into a foreign community for field work. They gather their data, and then zip off home without engaging with or acknowledging the contributions of the local researchers in that community. This week in the journal Current Biology, researchers tried to quantify just how widespread that tendency is in one area of study—coral reefs.

Searching through fifty years of publications published on the topic of warm water coral reef biodiversity research, they found that in 22% of the studies on coral reef ecosystems in Australia, there were no Australian researchers included as authors on the publication. The effect was even more noticeable in lower-income countries, such as Indonesia and the Philippines—where 40% of the published studies on coral reefs included no local scientists. 

Ira talks with two of the study’s authors, Paris Stefanoudis and Sheena Talma, about what they found, and how researchers can work to make science more inclusive. 

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Segment Guests

Sheena Talma

Sheena Talma is the science program manager at Nekton Foundation in the Seychelles.

Paris Stefanoudis

Paris Stefanoudis is a postdoctoral researcher in zoology at Oxford University in Oxford, U.K.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: Turning now to what is sometimes called parachute science. And I don’t mean the physics of how the Rover got down to Mars. Parachute science is a term describing how sometimes researchers drop down from their ivory tower, often located in the wealthy Western world, drop into a foreign community for fieldwork. They gather their data, and then zip off home without engaging with or acknowledging the contributions of the local researchers in that community.

This week in the journal Current Biology, researchers try to quantify just how widespread that tendency is in one area of study, coral reefs. Joining me now are two of the authors of that report, Dr. Paris Stefanoudis, postdoctoral researcher in zoology at Oxford, and Sheena Talma, the science program manager at Nekton Foundation in the UK. That’s an ocean conservation focused nonprofit. She’s from the Seychelles. Welcome to both of you.


SHEENA TALMA: Hi, and thank you for having us.

IRA FLATOW: You’re welcome. Paris, you studied this effect in coral reef research in places like Indonesia and Australia. Give us an idea of what you found.

PARIS STEFANOUDIS: So we chose to focus on those specific countries just because they were the most coral rich in terms of the available habitat that they have in their waters. So what we did find is, by looking at papers that have been published over the last 50 years, that a lot of the papers did not include any local scientists as coauthors.

Now this is one form of parachute science, so excluding scientists from the publication process. And we did see that when we were comparing Indonesia and Philippines, two lower to middle income countries, compared to Australia, a high income country, the rate of excluding scientists from publications for Australia was twice as low compared to the other countries. So this is a classic phenomenon whereby rich universities and their researchers try and exclude scientists from lower income countries.

IRA FLATOW: When you say they try to exclude them, is this really something that they knowingly try to do?

PARIS STEFANOUDIS: Maybe trying was not the right word. What I meant is that they don’t necessarily think it’s important to include scientists from those nations in the publication process. And this could be because it’s something that always happened, and scientists didn’t necessarily think about it as an immoral or wrong thing to do. And it also stems from the wrong belief that local scientists do not necessarily have good skills that are vital to the science that they are conducting. Which is a very wrong view to have.

IRA FLATOW: Sheena, I gave a try at defining parachute science before. How well did I do that?

SHEENA TALMA: So my take on parachute science is that it’s complex, it’s multilayered. It’s not just including more scientists in publications. It’s about actively building partnerships and relationships with host country nation scientists. It’s about enabling skills sharing and investing in up-and-coming talents. And it’s ensuring that once you leave that country where you do your fieldwork, there are other people there that are as invested and ready to take up the work in true partnership.

IRA FLATOW: So you’re not saying that researchers from places with more money and more resources shouldn’t be coming in there at all?

SHEENA TALMA: No, not at all. I mean, if you look at a lot of countries, especially– I’m going to use Seychelles, because that’s what I’m used to. We don’t necessarily have the resources that we can use towards doing high tech science, such as deep sea science or genetics. So we need those collaborations. We need the money that comes with institutions that do have a better financing, or better technology.

What we’re saying is that how those relationships need to be built is that, for example, if you’re writing a proposal to try and find out what coral lives at 30 meters in the Seychelles waters, then that proposal should be written both by a local scientist and the scientists in the higher income countries, for example. So that the investment is done locally. Because if you don’t invest in the host nation scientists, essentially once you leave, the local population doesn’t have the investment in the research that is being conducted.

IRA FLATOW: I’m Ira Flatow and this is Science Friday from WNYC Studios. Paris, I can see where this is a problem in fields like coral reefs, where the study area is in one specific place and one specific country. But is parachute science a problem in other fields too?

PARIS STEFANOUDIS: Yes. It’s not only confined to fieldwork based studies in environments that are far away from typically Western countries. So it can affect other research fields as well, from biomedicine or other fields. So it’s not unique for us marine scientists.

IRA FLATOW: And Sheena, how do you fix this? What’s the solution that you’re advocating? And I’ll ask both of you. Sheena, you can start first.

SHEENA TALMA: First and foremost, it’s ensuring that you look up scientists in your field where you want to go and work. For example, if you decided to come and work in the Seychelles, and you have funding, look up the scientists that already work there, that are based there. You can do that on Google Scholar. There’s so many different ways you can do that. You can also do it through governments. And try and collaborate with those scientists to come up with research plans that will not just benefit the science, but also the country in which you desire to work in.

I think one of the bigger conversations to have is the fact that it’s very institutional. The way that science, especially within the publishing world, the way it’s built is that you are rewarded on publishing in perhaps high end papers. You’re not rewarded for your abilities to create those relationships on the ground. Which are really important to ensure that long term conservation work and investment, from both the higher and lower income worlds, are done in a long term process.

PARIS STEFANOUDIS: So I think it’s really important for, first of all, from my perspective, so from researchers who go into other countries and conduct research, it’s really important to consider sort of the ethical considerations of your work. So you have to work together with people that live in the environments you want to study. It’s just not right to only focus in on trying to build your academic career. And get all the resources, write papers, and have a very successful career in academia without necessarily trying to help the people that actually live there.

So I think there are a lot of skills and practical knowledge from people who live in those environments, which shouldn’t be considered as of lesser value. They’re very important. It will actually make the science that you’re conducting much, much better. So I think ultimately what we should be trying and doing is engaging before, during, and after field work, with those scientists as equals. Because that’s going to benefit them as well as us.

IRA FLATOW: Well unfortunately we have run out of time. I’d like to thank both of you. Dr. Paris Stefanoudis, postdoctoral researcher in zoology at Oxford. Sheena Talma, who is the science program manager at Nekton foundation in the UK. Thank you both for being with us today.

SHEENA TALMA: Thank you so much for having us.

PARIS STEFANOUDIS: Thank you for having us.

IRA FLATOW: You’re welcome.

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