Skydiving science: controversy over the uses of data and specimens between developed and developing countries

The discovery of the “lord of the spear” -or with its scientific name: Ubirajara jubatus- was announced with great fanfare at the end of 2020. It was the first dinosaur that inhabited the southern hemisphere more than 110 million years ago and had some protofeathers. However, the finding generated a scandal: lhe scientists from Germany, Mexico and the United Kingdom who published this research were accused of illegally obtaining the fossil remains in Brazil and had to retract the publication. On Twitter, there is a #UbirajaraBelongstoBR campaign for which researchers also ask for the return of the fossil.

Some time ago, a similar event occurred with another species of dinosaur in Argentina. In 1999, paleontologist Sebastián Apesteguía and his team had found several dinosaur bones and petrified logs in Patagonia. In 2007 they returned to the site and found the almost complete skeleton of a carnivorous dinosaur. The joy did not last long because one of the two vehicles they were using overturned and the campaign had to be interrupted and the dinosaur could not be collected. It was covered with plaster with the intention of going to look for it the following year. The local government did not allow them to continue with the exploration.

But another team of researchers was able to access the site and extract the dinosaur. It was a team of researchers from Brazil, Canada and the United States. “It was a dishonest practice and could only be undone by the pressure on social networks that made foreigners open up about the situation and then locals,” recalled Apesteguía, a researcher at Conicet and the Félix de Azara Natural History Foundation in dialogue with Infobae . They named him Gualicho because of all the difficulties that the researchers had to go through to obtain the fossil remains and study it.

The case of the “appropriation of fossil remains” is part of a problem that has been going on for decades. But now it exploded. They call it “skydiving science” or “helicopter research , “and it consists of practices of researchers from developed countries who carry out explorations or various works in developing countries, such as taking data, samples, artifacts or fossil remains, with the help of local scientists or technicians but without explicitly acknowledging their contribution.

A few days ago , the Seventh World Conference on Research Integrity in South Africa ended with a blunt statement on equity issues affecting scientific associations in low- and middle-income countries. The Cape Town declaration will provide guidance on how researchers from low- and middle-income countries can become equal partners in international projects. And it is expected that unfair practices will be more reported.

“The non-mention of our work is common currency. Many foreign authors are aware of the importance of taking into account authors of any origin and any time, but at the same time others think that they only have to mention the most recent publication that talks about the subject, which in general is usually a revision by some Foreign”,Apesteguía pointed out. “The truth is that there are researchers emerging all the time. Perhaps they have reviewed much fewer specimens than the star authors who do have more facilities to travel around the world and see collections permanently. But fresh new insights can be very valuable to the sciences,” she added.

Meanwhile, the paleontologist from Conicet and the Argentine Museum of Natural Sciences, Fernando Novas, commented to Infobae : “The current case of the dinosaur that had been found in Brazil and is now in Germany without permission is emblematic of scientific imperialism. The scientific community reacted very well.” According to Novas, at least in Argentina, the “outbursts” of fossils are not frequent by foreigners or studies without the participation of local professionals because there are centuries-old scientific institutions, there is a great academic development since the fifties in paleontological matters, and by the validity of laws for the protection of the fossiliferous heritage, both national and provincial.

The “paratroopers” are also in the field of global public health, where they study the social determinants that affect diseases and treatments beyond the borders of each nation. Researchers move around the planet and -in some cases- do not take into account their colleagues in the countries they visit. “Skydiving science may seem like a problem from 50 years ago, but it’s still going on. It is a current problem and it still needs to be addressed more so that it does not continue to happen,” said Dr. Pilar Fernández, who graduated from the University of Buenos Aires and today works as a researcher at the Paul Allen School of Global Health in dialogue with Infobae . Washington State University, in the United States.

“Sometimes researchers who engage in dishonest practices within the field of global health do not do so intentionally. But they do not fully realize that they are doing colonialism in science. They extract data and take advantage of the lack of resources that exist in other countries to do science”, underlined Dr. Fernández. And she added: “There is a lot of talk in developed countries about building capacity in low- and middle-income countries. But I always argue that there is no lack of capacity in developing countries, as there are talented researchers.What is missing are monetary resources to be able to carry out the investigation. If genuine collaborations were made, everyone wins. There are several of us who are putting this problem on the global discussion table”.

In public health issues, “parachute” scientists take samples in the communities and take them to the central countries. But they often do not recognize the scientists, technicians, students and local communities as authors of the publications, who help them to enter different areas of the countries or to contact the populations they study. “Sometimes they just include them in the acknowledgments. It happens more in Southeast Asia and Africa, but in Latin America it also happens. In some cases, researchers from developed countries pay local scientists or students to take samples or do field work with an amount that is cheaper than if they had to hire someone from a central country ,” Fernández said.

Concern about the practice of “skydiving science” crosses different disciplines and more researchers come out to denounce it through studies that present evidence. Last May, a collaboration between researchers from different countries published a paper in the specialized journal The American Naturalist in whichThey denounced the lack of local participation in research and in the extraction of specimens from the ecosystems of the islands of the Caribbean Sea.“I hope that our study will encourage more people to reflect on the impact of their research and research practices, and to become more involved in the communities in which they do research,” said Melissa Kemp, assistant professor of integrative biology at the University of Texas at Austin. .

One of the team’s concerns is that other scientists have tended to view the Caribbean islands as a natural laboratory for testing hypotheses in ecology and evolutionary biology, a pristine region largely undisturbed by humans. That has made it difficult for local scientists to develop their careers. It also means that research questions that may be of interest to local communities may go unanswered and the ability of science to help solve local problems is diminished. The solution, the authors suggested, is to involve local people in the design, conduct, and interpretation of the research.

They warned that there are obstacles to accessing specimens from the Caribbean islands if you want to do work on the region’s biodiversity.The authors conducted a global analysis of Trinidad and Tobago’s digitized natural history collections, finding that the vast majority are housed in US and European institutions.This means that local scientists have to travel outside of their country to incorporate those specimens (which were from their own countries) into their research.

From the University of Oxford, there was also a group that decided to investigate the problem of “parachute science” in studies on coral reefs. They analyzed 50 years of studies on coral reef biodiversity, and quantified the practice of “skydiving science.” They discovered thatinstitutions in several lower-middle-income and upper-middle-income countries with abundant coral reefs produced less research than institutions based in high-income countries with fewer or, in some cases, no reefs.They also found that host-nation scientists (scientists from the nations where the field research was taking place) were not included in study authorship nearly twice as often when those studies were conducted in lower-income countries. The work was published in Current Biology last year.

“Unfortunately, for decades , it was the norm for researchers from high-income nations and wealthy institutions to engage in skydiving scientific practices and build successful academic careers because of it. Only recently has there been talk of unfair research practices in marine science ,” said scientist Paris Stefanoudis, a postdoctoral researcher in zoology at the University of Oxford. “Until now there was no quantifiable proof.”

“As a person of color from a large ocean state, I’ve definitely experienced skydiving science,” said co-author Sheena Talma, director of the Science Program at the Nekton Foundation UK and is from the Seychelles. “Some researchers apply for funding and only approach local scientists once they already have the grant. I have also seen that researchers only hire partners from the host country just to make it easier to get the permit,” she recalled.

Although skydiving science is difficult to combat due to its huge historical legacy, often linked to colonialism, the Oxford group offered a list of suggestions for scientists doing research in other countries, including liaising with local governments , co-designing a research program with host country researchers and stakeholders, partnering with early-stage researchers, and sharing data to promote knowledge sharing. They also hope that their work will lay the groundwork for more detailed guidelines for academic, research and funding institutions to eradicate skydiving science practices in the future.

There are already specialist journals such as The Lancet Global Health which imposed a restriction encouraging submissions to revise their practices to include local participants. Also last year the journal PLOS announced a policy requiring reporting changes for researchers working in other countries. And a group of researchers studying the human microbiome decided to make a public commitment for the future last year.

“Research on the human microbiome is going global. Scientists are characterizing the biodiversity of human gut microbes by taking stool samples from individuals from various populations around the world. We at the Global Microbiome Conservancy are part of this effort. It is an ethical imperative to engage populations in low-income countries in microbiome research,” they stated in their statement .

They recognized that microbiology research has focused primarily on populations living in urban areas in Europe and North America. That focus has created a stark disparity in knowledge of the human microbiome biased toward industrialized populations.However, the fastest growth rates for many microbiome-related diseases, such as inflammatory bowel disease, autoimmune diseases, and diabetes, are in developing countries. “This imbalance in knowledge will further exacerbate inequalities in health care,”they underlined.

The “paratrooper science” is in the pillory. The resolution of the scandal with the dinosaur in Brazil could mark a change, beyond the fact that the issue is boiling. In an article by Cathleen O’Grady in Science magazine , Brazilian paleontologist Juan Carlos Cisneros argued that“it is the right time” to talk about the helicopter investigation. The Cape Town Declaration – he estimated – will put pressure so that the main players such as universities and museums “do not want to be linked to bad practices”.

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