Q&A: How to stop ‘helicopter research colonisation’

sample preperation
A scientist preparing a sample in a laboratory. Copyright: UN Women/Ryan Brown, (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

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  • Experts promote ‘non-colonial’ science between global North and South
  • They aim to stop ‘helicopter research’ where local scientists go unacknowledged
  • Social media has provided a platform to raise awareness of the age-old issue

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Scientists from the global North often travel to countries in the global South, collect samples, analyse them, and publish results without acknowledging local scientists who provide help and knowledge for their research.

This practice is referred to as “helicopter research” and is a “way to perpetuate colonisation practices”, according to an article published in the journal PLOS Computational Biology. The authors, an international group of researchers, set out ten rules to avoid it and promote more collaborative, “non-colonial science between the global North and South.

Adriana Romero-Olivares, a biologist at the New Mexico State University and co-author of the paper, talked to SciDev.Net about helicopter research and how she hopes that global South scientists become aware of the problem.

Why is helicopter research a problem?

It is a problem because global North researchers have financial power over the global South. They are from wealthy countries and don’t struggle for funding as much as the global South researchers do. They get acknowledged for their findings, which is sometimes very disrespectful to global South scientists, who often are the ones that actually already have that knowledge, but are never acknowledged.

That’s in the context of our paper. In a broader context, helicopter research can happen anywhere in the world. It’s basically when researchers from the dominating culture extract data from people from the non-dominating culture. It happens a lot, for example, within the global North when researchers that are not indigenous people go to indigenous communities, extract data, collect samples, and then do the same as I described before, without acknowledging or respecting indigenous people and their culture.

Is there a particular field where this happens more often?

I think it happens in all fields. But I guess it happens the most in fields that require data collection. Within the sciences, it’s very common in all areas: biomedical research, ecological research, anthropology. In ecology, you can trace it back to when European naturalists came to the American continent for the very first time. It’s been happening forever.

Why did you decide to write about this topic?

This is a topic that feels very close to my heart. I was born and raised in Mexico, where I did my bachelor’s and my master’s. And now I live in the United States. When I was in Ensenada, I would see people from the US going there, collecting samples. Then I started to realise that many of them didn’t have any links with the local scientists in Ensenada — the city with the highest number of scientists per capita in Mexico — so there was no excuse for them not to make those connections.

That made me really angry. But what made me angrier was when I moved to the US and started to see how those practices were common. In all of the departments that I was part of, they would just go to global South countries and do that: go there, collect samples, come back to the US, analyse everything, and when you saw the list of co-authors in their papers, they usually never had any local collaborators.

I started to realise that some other people were angry about that. Even among global North researchers, there were people that understood that that practice is unfair and colonising. That was the reason why we decided to write about it.

helicopter rules

What can be the impact of a meaningful collaboration between global North and global South researchers?

There are many different impacts. At the core of it, it strengthens scientific research. You would make sure that there’s equality and fairness in the science that’s being conducted. The way that we envisioned, putting an end to helicopter research means that you’re also contributing to the strengthening of science in the global South.

It’s a win-win. You win because you contribute to science and knowledge from wherever you are, and, at the same time, you contribute to strengthening global South research groups and infrastructure, and to a more equitable science programme, which is ultimately what we want.

Many of the rules in the article have positive examples of organisations and journals which encourage collaborative science. Do you think there’s more awareness of this problem now?

I think there’s definitely more awareness. People have been looking into this for a really long time, but I think that social media, in the past few years, has given us this platform to spread this idea further and share what’s wrong with helicopter research.

The fact that journals are making policy changes where they’re not allowing authors to submit publications without any local collaborations is a very positive change. Sometimes you need those so that you actually make the effort. I know that reviewers are starting to point that out too, and that brings awareness to the editors. So, things are definitely changing.

I don’t think that we talk about it as much as we should, but I’m hoping that this paper is going to open up those conversation bridges where we can start to talk about it more and bring awareness of what we can do to actually stop it.

“Putting an end to helicopter research means that you’re also contributing to the strengthening of science in the global South.”

Adriana Romero-Olivares, biologist, New Mexico State University

The first rule the paper recommends is about establishing “win-win” collaborations and equal partnerships. How can this be beneficial to everyone involved?

To begin with, it would extend the scientific community. If you have to make connections with local collaborators, they have their own research group, so that immediately expands the amount of people that you are communicating with, brainstorming with, and exchanging ideas with.

It provides all sorts of different opportunities, from cultural exchange to becoming more aware of how things are done in different countries and cultures.

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One of the things that I see as a major win is that you learn and become aware of things that you may not be aware of if you are not working with these people. Usually the local people, scientists or non-scientists, are the ones who hold the most knowledge of their own surroundings. If you get in touch with them, you’re probably going to learn something about your system that you were not aware of, because you don’t live there, whereas the local people do. It strengthens science and ideas in general.

Do you think that the pandemic restrictions on travel have affected these dynamics?

Absolutely. All of a sudden, researchers that were traveling to the global South were not able to do so anymore. And they missed out on important seasonal samplings and important dates; there’s a gap in their data set now because of that.

If they had local collaborators that they could work with, they would have collected the samples. It would have been difficult for them, because science was difficult in general during the pandemic, but they would have probably found a way to figure it out.

These types of tragedies will continue to happen, because of global climate change. You might as well reach out to local collaborators. You can either miss out on data collection, or you can get in contact with someone local and make sure that the collections happen and that the data is going to be generated and facilitated.

This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Latin American desk.