Southern climate scientists ‘absent from global debate’

climate meeting
Copyright: Mark Henley/Panos

Speed read

  • Some focus more on problem-solving than publications [or ‘getting published’]
  • Academic metrics, such as citation indices, then put them at a disadvantage
  • This could lead to important science being disregarded

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Climate change researchers from developing countries are finding it hard to get their work accepted and highlighted in international discussions, a conference has heard.
This is because of differences in their resources and research goals, which cause their Northern counterparts to consider their work less credible, said scientists at the World Social Science Forum 2015 in Durban, South Africa.
But this attitude could lead to important science being disregarded, delegates warned. “Addressing climate change may require a shift in how we characterise knowledge in order to broaden the body of research to include both Northern- and Southern-driven knowledge,” said Ralph Borland, a researcher on technology and society at the University of Cape Town, South Africa.

“If knowledge is legitimised from Northern researchers in Northern journals, a singular view and interest gets advanced.”

Ralph Borland, University of Cape Town, South Africa


Based on a history of greater access to funding and materials, Borland said industrialised countries have established a status quo that must be changed. “If knowledge is legitimised from Northern researchers in Northern journals, a singular view and interest gets advanced,” he said.
At the conference, which ended yesterday, Borland presented his work from the Global Arenas of Knowledge project. This initiative aims to gather and highlight contributions made by researchers from Australia, Brazil and South Africa in the areas of HIV/AIDS, gender studies and climate change.
“The picture that is emerging from this study is of both the contribution to these fields being made by Southern researchers and of the unequal terrain in which this contribution takes place,” said Borland.
Researchers from 56 countries gathered at the forum to discuss the latest progress in social science and hear the latest knowledge about addressing problems affecting different societies and humanity. In advance of the meeting, ministers from some of the world’s poorest countries — including Djibouti, Eritrea, Somalia and Sudan — signed a declaration to support social science in their countries.
At the meeting, researchers discussed how conventional academic metrics, such as citation indices, disadvantage researchers in developing countries whose work is less focused on getting published. Their intentions might be to solve problems on the ground, but international journals would not reflect such efforts, the conference heard.
The Energy Research Centre at the University of Cape Town was mentioned as an example. The centre is the country’s leading climate change research institution, but it focuses on joint projects between state representatives, academics, industry and NGOs. As a result, much of its output is in the form of policy briefs, not journal articles, the audience was told.

In the lead up to COP 21, the UN’s climate change summit in Paris, France, due to take place in December, the debate around climate change should recognise alternative approaches to climate science, according to Blessings Chinsinga, an agriculture researcher at the University of Malawi.
“If climate change is to be dealt with, it will require international partnerships,” he told SciDev.Net. “We want to be able to contribute to global climate change knowledge to influence policy design.”