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Fringed by vibrant coral reefs, Fiji is a popular destination for international tourists and marine scientists. But when the COVID-19 pandemic arrived last year, forcing lockdowns and travel restrictions around the world, many (though not all) international field research projects ground to a halt.
Through its abrupt absence, the dominance of a practice known as parachute science was highlighted by the clampdown. In Fiji, as in other lower-income countries, parachute science occurs when international scientists, often from wealthier nations, travel to a country to complete fieldwork and then leave without meaningfully engaging with local researchers or communities.
With flights grounded and borders closed, Fijian coral reef ecologist Sangeeta Mangubhai suddenly wasn’t fielding constant requests for foreign collaboration. And she wasn’t spending her time tracking which international academics might be swooping in to her field sites and quickly publishing papers on issues that she had been gathering data on for years—and working to bring it to communities and decision-makers.
Since 2014, Mangubhai has been leading coral reef monitoring efforts as the director of the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Fiji office. She can easily list a half-dozen ways foreign scientists have gone around, and even dismissed, her and her team. Some blithely fly to Fiji with predetermined research priorities and fail to learn about her team’s existing work or their needs, she says. Others add a local scientist to a foreign research proposal at the last minute, a “tokenistic inclusion” that implies there is “no genuine interest in collaboration, and we are a tick box for them to say they have ‘local partners’ and get funding for themselves,” Mangubhai says. Other times, fully qualified local scientists working on international collaborations are relegated solely to collecting data—in other words, doing manual labor—rather than analyzing data or writing manuscripts.
Mangubhai says she doesn’t know if scientists exhibiting parachute behavior are “intentionally manipulative or just naive—just clueless about how colonial their approaches to working with us [are].”
Seychellois marine scientist Sheena Talma is all too familiar with the problem. In a recent paper, she and her colleagues showed that the academics publishing the most scientific papers on coral biodiversity are mainly based out of high-income countries with few, or no, coral reefs.
Over time, negative experiences with foreign scientists have made Mangubhai increasingly protective of her staff and their research. She says she has to evaluate possible partnerships to avoid those predatory scientists who come in and strip information from her country “just to profit their own career.”
But with so many research trips canceled because of the pandemic, Mangubhai and her peers found new opportunities in the research landscape because they were no longer subjected to this problematic practice.
One opportunity came in the form of a unique Pacific Islander research collaboration led by the Locally Managed Marine Area Network International, an association of community-based marine conservation practitioners in the Indo-Pacific. Mangubhai’s team, along with nonprofit WorldFish and the Australian National Centre for Ocean Resources and Security, quickly designed and implemented a study focused on the impacts of the pandemic on the Pacific.
They developed a rapid response survey designed to assess how COVID-19 was affecting 181 villages across seven Pacific island countries. On top of the pandemic, Fiji was hit in April 2020 by Tropical Cyclone Harold, a Category 4 storm that displaced 6,000 people and racked up US $22.6-million in damages. For Fiji, the survey helped illuminate the combined effects of the pandemic and cyclone on issues like hunger, livelihoods, fishing practices, and gender equity. More broadly, it allowed the collaborators to put real data into the hands of government officials in the countries surveyed.
Socioeconomic studies like this would often be the focus of parachute scientists, who can easily fly in and out after a disaster, Mangubhai says. But taking the lead on this type of work encouraged some Pacific Islanders who don’t come from a traditional academic background to step up in new ways, she says, allowing them to contribute to data analysis and scientific manuscripts—and receive rare formal recognition as authors on those papers.
“We have a really amazing, young, dynamic woman from Fiji that really has just been driving the energy for it,” says Mangubhai. It’s been “quite empowering for everyone to see how capable we are.”
Still, with COVID-19 vaccinations on the rise and travel plans along with them, many researchers are likely to return to the field—and to old habits.
In their paper about parachute science in coral biodiversity research, Talma and her colleagues laid out recommendations to reverse these trends. For example, they suggest that scientists in high-income countries develop joint research agendas with local collaborators early in a project, establish programs to invest in early career researchers in low-income nations, and share their copies of key academic papers with colleagues working in places with limited access to scientific literature.
While Talma is encouraged by the number of researchers contacting her about how to act on the ideas from this paper, she says she hasn’t yet seen much difference on the ground in Seychelles.
“I think in most scientists’ minds, this is temporary,” she says of the pandemic’s effects. “Perhaps what is changing is the fact that [parachute science] is being put in the spotlight.”
Still, there are signs of progress. Emily Darling, a Toronto, Ontario–based biologist who runs the Wildlife Conservation Society’s global coral monitoring program, says the pandemic’s interruption has been a wake-up call. It has prompted her and others working at global environmental nonprofits to reexamine how research is undertaken, to develop new processes and tools to empower local scientists, and to focus on “decarbonizing and decolonizing” their work.
“This is an opportunity to recalibrate what we do, and we should take it,” she says. “But I do really miss coral reefs.”