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  • CAREER COLUMN

Meaningful collaborations can end ‘helicopter research’

Views from the Nadab lookout, at the sacred Indigenous site of Ubirr in Kakadu National Park, Australia.

The sacred Indigenous site of Ubirr in Kakadu National Park, Australia.Credit: Education Images/Universal Images Group/Getty

Almost 200 years ago, Charles Darwin left England on a voyage to South America, arriving in Brazil and then travelling through Argentina, Chile, Peru and Ecuador. His research eventually led to the publication of a book considered to be the foundation of modern biological science, 1859’s On the Origin of Species. But whatever Darwin learnt from the people whose ancestors had lived in the Americas for 2,500 years is unknown. On the Origin of Species hardly mentions them — except a few instances when Darwin refers to the Indigenous people of Tierra del Fuego as “savages” or “barbarians”.

The practice of scientists from wealthy nations visiting lower-income countries, collecting samples, publishing the results with little or no involvement from local scientists, and providing no benefit for the local community is referred to as neo-colonial, helicopter or parachute research1. This type of science was not exclusive to Darwin: during the nineteenth century, German explorer Alexander von Humboldt, who visited Venezuela, Colombia, Cuba and Mexico, and British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace, who collected biological specimens in southeast Asia, did the same. And even now, helicopter research is still common in science1.

I was born in Mexico, and my first postdoctoral position was at Cinvestav in Yucatan, part of the National Polytechnic Institute. For many years, I read papers on the rainforest and freshwater sinkholes of Yucatan, the mangroves of the Mexican Caribbean and the Maya ruins of southern Mexico. Most of those papers do not include Mexican authors or agencies, and they often lack an acknowledgement to the Maya people who live in the region. I saw foreign scientists come to our laboratory carrying high-tech instruments that we didn’t have access to. We took the scientists to our field sites and taught them about the unique ecology of the mangroves. Sometimes they used our small laboratory to store or analyse their samples. Neither I nor anyone else on the team was ever asked to contribute to the papers that were published.

In August 2011, I was invited to participate in an international project led by Boone Kauffman at Oregon State University in Corvallis. We spent a week working in the mangroves, during which he taught me how to determine carbon storage in the coastal vegetation. In return, I shared my knowledge of the Mexican Caribbean mangroves: how rivers in the region flow only underground and why mangroves that are 100 years old are no taller than my knee. Because of the data I collected, Kauffman asked me to be the lead author on the paper. I was honoured and grateful. Almost ten years on, this paper2 is still my most cited, and one of the reasons I am recognized as an expert in the field.

Meaningful international collaborations, instead of helicopter research, can have a marked impact on low-income nations. As well as providing young local scientists with the opportunity to lead global research projects, they can also help to create better research that is meaningful and has a real-world impact. I have learnt this lesson throughout my career.

After my paper with Kauffman was published, I worked on a project focusing on the mangroves of La Encrucijada Biosphere Reserve on the border of Mexico and Guatemala. For this project, I was working with the Mexican Nature Conservation Trust, the government agency the National Commission of Natural Protected Areas and reserve rangers, who are members of the local community.

During the field trip, I got to know a ranger called Leonardo Castro, who was born in the region and still lives locally. I spent days with him in the boat, and he helped me to decide which sites to sample, and explained why some sites had taller trees than others and how some trees were dying because of excess sediment from upland erosion. After I left, I contacted him to share the results; he showed me that a fire in the reserve some years ago could explain my data. He was central to the study’s design and the interpretation of the results, and he is a well-deserved co-author of the paper3. Years later, we are still in contact and help each other with our work to conserve mangroves in Mexico.

I now live in Australia, where I work on a project with the government agency Geosciences Australia, flying drones over wetlands to correct satellite-imagery deficiencies. For this work, I have travelled to Quandamooka in Queensland; the Gwydir wetlands, New South Wales; and Kakadu National Park in the Northern Territory. In each of these places, I have had the privilege of having a local First Nations person or Traditional Owner of the land guiding me in the field, sharing their knowledge. They have explained the seasonal and decadal changes that they and their ancestors have seen on these wetlands. They have also taught me the cultural and spiritual value of these places. We are currently writing a manuscript for this project. The list of authors includes a Traditional Owner and an elder from Quandamooka, Bininj/Mungguy women from Kakadu and a Gamilaraay Traditional Owner of Gwydir marshes.

From these experiences, I have made my own set of rules to follow to form meaningful collaborations and avoid helicopter research:

1. When you start a project in a new location, take the time to learn who is working or living at the site. These people could be an Indigenous group or scientists from another university, government agency or non-governmental organization. Contact them before you start your project and invite them to a meeting to introduce yourself.

2. In the field, take the time to meet as many people as you can, even if it’s just for coffee. Discover what you have in common. Maybe they have long-term data they want to share or they can provide advice for choosing one field site over another one.

3. Offer to collaborate and provide something in exchange, such as information, sample analysis, and, later, co-authorship.

4. Involve everyone throughout the process. Share your data and ask for advice and feedback as soon as you get some results. Don’t wait for the project to be finalized or the paper to be published. Send a report of your results, even if it’s just a graph and some pictures.

5. If they agree to collaborate, recognize the input that they have already had. Perhaps without you noticing, they could have improved your sampling design (by helping you choose your field sites) or helped with data collection (by taking you to a location or helping you to arrange entrance to a farm or a protected area, for example). And their local knowledge will be extremely valuable for interpreting the results.

An immediate solution to stop helicopter research is to recognize that knowledge comes in many forms, and diversity of understanding improves research. As a field scientist who works in many locations around the world, my knowledge of the natural world is limited to what I can gather on my relatively short field trips.

Without the knowledge of local people and their traditional culture that can span thousands of years, my conclusions could be misinformed or simply wrong. I have learnt that working with local people is not about charity, but about respecting the knowledge that does not follow the conventional rules of colonial science. Importantly, it is about ensuring research has an impact on and is valuable to the places we are lucky enough to study.

doi: https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-021-01795-1

This is an article from the Nature Careers Community, a place for Nature readers to share their professional experiences and advice. Guest posts are encouraged.

References

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