Recommendations to reduce parachute science in coral reef biodiversity research

New research from the University of Oxford, Nekton Foundation (UK), De La Salle University (Philippines), James Cook University (Australia) and University of the South Pacific (Fiji) sets out recommendations to reduce parachute science in coral reef biodiversity research.

Parachute science (sometimes referred to as colonial science) is when international scientists, typically from higher-income countries, conduct field studies in another country, typically of lower income, and then complete the research in their home country without any further engagement with others from that nation.

This means that opportunities to build skills and experiences for researchers from lower and middle-income countries are frequently missed, and because this research is often published behind expensive paywalls it is often not accessible to scientists from the countries the research is about. At the same time overseas researchers miss out on understanding local context and incorporating local knowledge in the interpretation of results.

This study looked at papers about coral reefs published over the last 50 years, and found that 8 of the 10 countries producing most research in this area were classified as high-income. In addition, there was a mismatch between available coral reef habitat area and research output, with several coral-reef-rich, middle-income nations having a comparatively low research output and vice versa.

Another major problem with parachute science is that host nation scientists (scientists from the nation where fieldwork took place) are often not listed as co-authors to the research published from the data collected during fieldwork, and when they are listed, they are most likely to be included as a middle author, indicating lack of opportunities to lead on the analysis and interpretation of the data presented in those studies. For example, 40% of research from studies in Philippines and Indonesia (both lower-middle-income countries) did not include any host nation scientists, while this fell to 20% in the case of Australia (high-income country). Finally, it was  also found that only one in four papers included details of research permits, a necessary prerequisite to conduct fieldwork in any marine setting.

The team behind this research wants to use this as a starting point for discussions about increasing ethical, equitable and truly collaborative research practices, and provide a list of recommendations aimed at both researchers and publishers to help eliminate practices of parachute science in marine research.

This begins by finding local academic collaborators and liaising with local governments to find both contacts and acquire relevant permits. Once connected, researchers can collaborate to create a shared research agenda, and engage with early career researchers in the host country in order to exchange information and transferable skills.

“Parachute science is an unacceptable practice that does not have a place in the 21st century. We are hoping that by quantifying this phenomenon in coral reef research, we can start a discussion on how to eradicate this phenomenon from the wider field of ecology”, says lead author Dr Paris Stephanoudis.

Parachute science is complex, historical and multi-layered. To overcome it, scientists conducting work overseas need to actively build partnerships and relationships with host country researchers, encourage skills sharing, and invest in the local up-and-coming talents. Ultimately, this will ensure that once foreign researchers leave, there will now be local champions invested in continuing the work.

Moving forward the team seek to ensure inclusive practices in their own research by learning from their experiences with overseas partners. They encourage others to do the same and hope that stopping parachute science will be at the heart of field work discussions.

Read the full paper here.