How Mekong women hone science skills

Copyright: Chris Stowers / Panos

Speed read

  • Only 22.6 per cent of researchers in South-East Asia and the Pacific are women
  • Bangkok-based ADPC’s project in universities seeks to uplift research skills
  • More are now involved in research work on climate change and food production

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[MANILA] Every two weeks, Somkhith Bouridam of the National University of Laos and her assistant, Palamy Changleuxay, participate in a conference call on a project to help countries across the Lower Mekong region use satellite imagery to cope with climate change and food insecurity.

“Bringing women into science is one of the best ways to ensure that they are valued as much as men.”

By Palamy Changleuxay, geographic information system specialist

The five-year project called SERVIR-Mekong is being implemented by universities in Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam along with the Bangkok-based non-profit Asian Disaster Preparedness Center (ADPC).

“This project is actually very fruitful in terms of improving professional skills,” Changleuxay, a geographic information system specialist, tells SciDev.Net as the UN marks International Day of Women and Girls in Science on 11 February.

“I got the chance to not only explore the world of science but also build up my network in countries in the Lower Mekong region,” she notes. “Bringing women into science is one of the best ways to ensure that they are valued as much as men.”

Changleuxay and Bouridam are two bright spots in an otherwise grim field for women. According to the UNESCO Institute for Statistics, women accounted for only 28.4 per cent of science researchers globally in October 2015, roughly the same share as in 2009.

In South-East Asia and the Pacific, about 22.6 per cent of researchers are female, ranking second to last globally, just ahead of South and West Asia, where only 18.9 per cent of researchers are female.

SERVIR-Mekong, which is funded by the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the US Agency for International Development (USAID), officially launched in August 2015. It is the latest outpost of the SERVIR global network that operates in over 30 countries worldwide.

Some SERVIR hubs have reported successful outcomes. According to USAID, data gathered through the programme in Bangladesh helped extend the lead time for flood prediction from five to eight days. In the Mekong region, tools are being developed to monitor land cover, drought and rainfall to predict flash floods and associated disasters.

Changleuxay hopes that her work in the Mekong outpost will help strengthen the professional capacity of researchers in Laos and neighbouring countries working in spatial data fields particularly among women. She also hopes that SERVIR-Mekong will encourage more projects in the region.

The need is great. David Ganz, chief of party of SERVIR-Mekong at ADPC, tells SciDev.Net that data in the region are still viewed as power so stakeholders will hoard it even from their own countrymen. They may sell the data but may just keep it because they feel that it is an issue of national sovereignty and they have a right to it.

But satellite imagery is publicly available. “There’s an inundation of data out there right now and what people need to know is how to access it, process it, and utilise it for making better decisions,” says Ganz.

This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s South-East Asia & Pacific desk.