Earlier this year, a team of researchers published a study on Indonesia’s Bajau people that made a highlight in evolutionary biology. Bajau people have been widely known as extraordinary divers. The study unveiled that these people have significantly bigger spleens compared to those live in the nearby farming communities. Bajau people spend most of their days freediving and hunting underwater for generations. The researchers also identified 25 distinctive genes that are plausibly associated with the sea gipsies’ unique lifestyle, as reported in Cell. No doubt, this research has revealed crucial evidence on human adaptation under extreme condition. Scientifically, there has been no flaw or concerns about the research and its findings. Nevertheless, the publication has been disconcerting for some Indonesian scientists, who revealed concerns over western scientists’ behaviours.
The story above reflects a bigger social phenomenon, the so-called ‘helicopter science’, where foreign scientists come and collect data for a short period of time in a particular local area. They then go back home, analyse and write their research in their institution, often disconnected from the local contexts, from the local knowledge, and from those who have been focusing their research in longer term, often for their entire career. Two potential misses: (i) the research results might be biased due to small samples and also lack of local contexts; (ii) without true collaboration with local scientists, if any, long-term research for covering breadth and depth of exciting findings will not be feasible. The study may bring some progress to science, but by leaving behind the local researchers, the knowledge and capacity gaps among the scientific community will be widened, primarily due to lack of funding and resources to support scientific research in developing countries. The problem is magnified specifically for basic natural science that needs advanced technology and expensive lab works, such as in genetic studies.
This issue often happens in biodiversity-rich developing countries, where data are scarce and badly needed, but funding some particular research topics are not yet a priority. These countries are often alleged for enforcing complicated procedures and unclear regulation in facilitating and hosting foreign researchers and in permitting samples to be taken out of the country. While this is factual, it does not tell us the complete story. Cultural and language barrier can also create misunderstanding and unmet expectation between scientists. The front desk officers who implement the procedures are blind to the reason behind the regulation. Local counterparts are often employed as logistic support or leg workers and ended up having narrow space, if any, in participating in doing science. Not unlike Trump’s current policy for balanced trade, developing countries’ protection policy can retaliate back by imposing stricter regulations for research by foreign scientists. This is also similar to meta-analysis scientists who are called as “research parasites” by other scientists who collect primary data. As a result, this tit for tat will slow down new scientific discoveries in under-researched areas.
Call for inclusive science
“Helicopter science” is just one form of implicit biases and inequalities that do exist and persist in the scientific community. The wall between countries in doing science should be removed through collaboration driven by ethics. The scientific partnership should be built on mutual respect and benefit. Of course, this is easier said than done. Scientists in developing countries are hindered by limited financial and institutional support, technical skills, as well as exposure to the advances in scientific discoveries. Practical or applied research is often more relevant for the locals than basic research, and therefore the collaboration in such areas will be truly fruitful.
On the other hand, local scientists should actively engage in reducing “helicopter science” practice by being pro-active. One good example is from African scientists who have taken a step forward by declaring the ethical handling of samples for genomic studies. Like everything else, the sociology of science will be rich and flourished when diversity is cherished. In reaching so, collaborative research has to bring benefit to all parties.