AGU 2021 Workshop:
Bringing ‘parachute science’ back to Earth to
improve remote sensing of biodiversity for all
Parachute Science Workshop @ 2021 AGU Fall Meeting
Full Workshop Description
The most important scientific challenges facing us today are global in scope and interdisciplinary in nature. Understanding and addressing environmental problems such as global climate change and biodiversity loss will require collaboration and trust within and across the international research community. International research endeavours have the potential to engage scientists from around the world to address these questions and develop innovative solutions. But, they also have the potential to alienate, discourage, and hinder progress through ‘parachute science’ in which scientists, often from wealthier nations, visit a location, collect data, and publish results with minimal engagement with the local scientists and/or decision-makers. The growing use of remote sensing has the potential to exacerbate these issues through remote data collection, interpretation, and analysis. This practice ignores local traditional knowledge and scientific expertise, reinforces existing global inequities, and reduces uptake. By ignoring critical local context and expertise, the ultimate consequences may be reduced impact of science in the local country, and lower quality science.
Avoiding parachute science has implications not only for international science and collaborations, but also for issues of justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion (JEDI) in the US and more broadly. Representation of racial and ethnic minorities in the geosciences remains abysmally low. Integrating local and traditional voices and perspectives through collaborative research is one way to challenge global inequities and increase diversity that can be mirrored in our student populations and future workforce. It is important to have these conversations now, as the rate of international research is increasing, particularly within the biodiversity community. A set of best practices is needed to structure projects to maximize meaningful engagement and collaboration (including opportunities for data sharing, co-authorship, reciprocal visits and training). The question is, how do we do this well?
In this workshop, we will discuss the challenges of developing bi- and multilateral international research projects, with a specific focus on avoiding ‘parachute science’ in projects related to remote sensing of the environment and biodiversity. The workshop will kick off with a panel discussion involving individuals that have had experiences with international research projects in the past. Then, using the recently funded NASA BioSCape program (bioscape.io) as an example, we will encourage participants to brainstorm and co-design strategies to enhance scientific engagement. Lastly, we will also discuss potential indicators that assess the integrity of international research projects that participants can use in their own collaborations.
Flip through the workshop slides below.
Locations the workshop participants reported they had conducted research or collaborated.
We had 18 participants from four countries discuss issues of parachute science for the three hour workshop.
Participants came from a variety of countries, and had experience conducting research across the globe.
After some introductions, we had started by surveying participants as to what they thought was the most relevant issue in parachute science. Disparities in funding was rated as the top concern, followed by differences in language, nationality, education, culture, and race.
Woody Turner, the Program Scientist and Manager for Biological Diversity and Ecological Forecasting at NASA's Science Mission Directorate, ran us through some of the administrative hurdles associated with US federal funding and emphasized that inclusion is a core NASA value.
Panel Discussion Participants
We hosted a panel discussion with speakers including:
Asha de Vos, founder and executive director of OceansWell, Sri Lanka's first marine conservation research and education organization. Asha is a marine biologist, ocean educator and pioneer of blue whale research within the northern Indian Ocean.
Izak Smit, Science Manager for the South African National Parks. Izak has an interest in applied conservation/ecology science with relevance to management of protected areas.
Abel Ramoelo, Associate Professor/ Director at the Centre for Environmental Studies, University of Pretoria, South Africa. Abel researches remote sensing and its applications for environmental assessment and monitoring.
Anabelle Cardoso, Science Team Manager for BioSCape. Anabelle has spent most of research career in universities in the UK and USA collecting data in Gabon, South Africa, and Ghana.
Amy Frazier, Associate Professor in the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning at Arizona State University. Amy is interested in using remote sensing to benefit conservation and biodiversity.
Participants' ranking of the most relevant areas in the issue of parachute science.
Participants spent time in breakout rooms where they discussed three questions about parachute science, this is what they had to say:
1) In remote sensing & biodiversity (and related fields), how can parachute science manifest? What does it look like?
Remote sensing is quite technical, and lower income countries may lack the capacity to make full use of remote sensing data collected in their country. Higher income countries collecting data need to upskill local scientists in how to use the data they collect, not simply make the data accessible ("dump data and leave").
Capacity-building workshops are often included in a grant but at the end of the day it is publications that define the success of the grant. Broader impacts are often tacked on at the end, and they are designed by the PI’s rather than co-designed with the community that would actually benefit. Who is the community being served? Is it the community on the ground where the data are being collected? Is it the scientific community in the country where data collection is taking place? If you can engage with people deeply, how do you assess whether the people you are engaging with are representative of the broader interests or community? Need to recognize there is structure and hierarchies in all areas of the world where we work.
Equitable pay is important and a present problem. Sometimes it is assumed local collaborators need or will be okay with less pay than international collaborators.
There are instances where scientists feel their research is “helping” because it is addressing an important topic, but fail to ask the local community what they think is important or helpful.
Remote sensing can be done (inadvisably) without ground truthing, thus it is "easy" to collect data somewhere without discussing your findings with local scientists.
2) How do we work towards meaningful and equitable collaboration in remote sensing of biodiversity?
Co-develop projects. Notify your partners when you're looking for funding so that they can do the same.
Co-supervise students/postdocs, also helps share funding across borders.
Discuss expectations of what different partners can/will contribute and how resources will be allocated.
Clear and inclusive authorship guidelines/expectations. Be clear about who is leading which papers. This may include pre-registering research papers so authorship conversations take part at the beginning, rather than the end of the process.
Make an effort to develop your "soft skills", like empathy, being a good listener, and checking your biases.
Have a project associate (funded by the funder) whose responsibility it is to facilitate, track and maintain relationships and success of the project.
Be deliberate about who you work with and avoid tokenism (e.g. partnering with someone just to access their research permit).
Make an effort to understand local research priorities.
Advocate for changing the incentive system for researchers - currently most of what matters for tenure applications is lead and senior author publications, but if publications continue to be the only currency on which researchers are assessed, then affecting change will be difficult.
As journals move to open access models with fees waived for corresponding authors from certain countries, there is potential for more author involvement but also for advantage to be taken. Be aware of these opportunities and challenges.
Make non-English journals more recognized and celebrated - move away from treating English-language journals as the high impact journals
3) What are some effective ‘metrics’ of engagement we can track?
Co-authorship (including facilitating “overseas“ lead and senior authors) .
Local language engagement.
The degree to which the research product meets the needs of the end user.
Assessing the "narrative" that surrounds the research. Once you have defined a metric it is easy for it to be gamed. It’s important to keep any assessment open enough that the narrative can be heard.
Tracking co-mentored students or postdocs: Where do they end up, what impact they have, do they give back to their local community., do they continue and facilitate international collaborations?
Participants at the workshop left generally positive feedback in our exit survey, saying it was "one of the best workshops I've attended on this topic" and that the "content was great!". It was noted that our panel could have included more speakers from low and middle income countries (LMIC). The BioSCape team is always trying to improve and we will make an effort to address this for future meetings.