Dolors with Herrara near his burnt tractor in a private reserve in the Colombian Orinoco basin.

Dolors Armenteras Pascual (left) works with local landowners such as Alejandro Herrera, pictured on his private reserve in the Colombian Orinoco basin, and is often sought out for research collaborations. She argues such partnerships should be more equitable.Credit: Maria Meza

Decolonizing science

Science is steeped in injustice and exploitation. Scientific insights from marginalized people have been erased, natural-history specimens have been taken without consent and genetics data have been manipulated to back eugenics movements. Without acknowledgement and redress of this legacy, many people from minority ethnic groups have little trust in science and certainly don’t feel welcome in academia — an ongoing barrier to the levels of diversity that many universities claim to pursue.

This is the first in a short series of articles about decolonizing the biosciences. Dolors Armenteras Pascual, a biodiversity conservation researcher at the National University of Colombia in Bogotá, describes how she, as a researcher in the global south, would like equitable partnerships with global-north collaborators.

I think there’s a lot of ‘equity washing’ — if I can invent a term — which really pisses me off. By that, I mean researchers or institutions add superficial, in-name-only equity efforts to their departments, events or collaborations — and nothing changes. Colleagues from rich nations will invite me to work on a project and say, “You only have to provide me with access to the field sites” or “You only have to provide me with the species data” ‘Only’. It’s unbelievable. Do you know how often I receive dismissive comments joking about cocaine and corruption when I introduce myself as a researcher from Colombia? These are researchers who have probably signed the Declaration on Research Assessment (DORA), which has a main goal of making research assessment more equitable around the globe. So far, more than 22,000 individuals and institutions in 159 countries have signed — but they mostly don’t apply it.

For example, here is a typical funding rejection I receive: “The applicant has strong credentials. She has an excellent publication record for the field. However, compared to highly cited researchers, her output seems below the standards of the call.” I don’t have the resources available to colleagues in wealthier countries in the global north. To compare researchers’ impacts fairly, I think we should change how metrics, such as h-index, are calculated. For example, one could multiply one’s impact score by the percentage difference of gross domestic product spent on science between countries.

In an article last year, I detailed guidelines for healthy global scientific collaborations such as: avoid tokenism, build long-term collaborations and don’t be extractive (D. Armenteras Nature Ecol. Evol. 5, 1193–1194; 2021). Much of it comes down to basic human communication. First, listen. Really listen. Try to put yourself in our position and have some empathy. I would like to see colleagues from the global north get out of their comfort zones and try to debate in another language. I’d also like to see more researchers take steps to dismantle the extractive scientific hegemony that keeps the funding power in the hands of people in the global north, hindering efforts to build capacity in the global south. We don’t have time for progress to be so slow.

It’s difficult when colleagues with privilege view those of us who vocalize our frustrations as complainers. If you want to collaborate with me here in Colombia to help you build a brand in France or the United Kingdom, forget it. I only accept invitations that allow my group to be on a level playing field and for us to take a leadership role. It’s not easy, and there is a cost, but I find it helpful to set these boundaries.