Q&A: Parachute Science in Coral Reef Research
Q&A: Parachute Science in Coral Reef Research

Q&A: Parachute Science in Coral Reef Research

Scientists who study the marine ecosystems have frequently failed to involve local researchers in projects, a study finds.

Asher Jones
Asher Jones
Feb 24, 2021

ABOVE: Aerial view of the Great Barrier Reef in Queensland, Australia

Indonesia, Australia, and the Philippines are home to the lion’s share of coral reefs, but most studies on these ecosystems are done by researchers based in the US, Australia, and the UK. This mismatch points to parachute science, whereby scientists from high income nations conduct fieldwork in another, often low-income country without engaging local researchers, says Paris Stefanoudis, a marine biologist at the University of Oxford and the Nekton Foundation in Oxford, UK. “It’s about not creating space for host country scientists to participate and actively get involved,” adds Sheena Talma, a marine biologist at the Nekton Foundation.

To understand the extent of parachute science in coral reef biodiversity research, Stefanoudis, Talma, and their colleagues compared countries’ research output with the amount of coral reef habitat in those countries. The findings, published this week (February 22) in Current Biology, indicate that local scientists are often excluded from coral reef research.

Talma and Stefanoudis spoke with The Scientist about why parachute science is a problem and how coral reef researchers can avoid this practice to enjoy the benefits of engaging with local scientists.

The Scientist: What are some of the problems with parachute science, or conversely, what are some of the advantages of involving local scientists? 

Sheena Talma: First and foremost, a lot of the work that is done by foreign scientists in host countries will have global impact, which is a good thing, but a lot of the work needs to relate to the people that live in those regions. For example, I’m from the Seychelles, and we rely on fisheries and coral reefs. [If local people aren’t involved in research], then it becomes really difficult for the people that live within those countries to become engaged but also to fully understand and actively be involved in the solutions, whether it’s conservation or better management. But it also comes from a level of power and hierarchy because local people need to be involved in decision making, so they also need to be part of the scientific process.

By being more inclusive and collaborative, you actually get better science at the end of the day.

—Paris Stefanoudis, University of Oxford and the Nekton Foundation

Paris Stefanoudis: We also get benefits by being more inclusive and doing truly collaborative work, so that’s something that probably a lot of scientists don’t necessarily take into account. They may think ‘Okay, this is the ethical thing to do,’ and tick a box. But actually we do also get benefits from it because there is a lot of knowledge within those nations’ scientists, from practical skills or on-the-ground knowledge of these ecosystems—coral reefs, in this case. By being more inclusive and collaborative, you actually get better science at the end of the day, which also benefits the people that need it the most.

ST: With regards to benefits of true collaboration, I think one of the biggest things is being able to collect data over a long period of time, because if you have a local scientist, a host nation scientist, involved, it means that a researcher who’s up in the UK doesn’t have to come to the Indian Ocean all the time to collect that data set, which means that something like COVID won’t inhibit how we do science. 

TS: What inspired this study on parachute science in coral reef research? 

PS: If we go back to 2020, we had a lot of discussions regarding the protests following the killing of George Floyd in the US and the Black Lives Matter movement. . . . We had a lot of discussions within our group about our own potential biases, about the way we conduct studies . . . and parachute science is one aspect of it. . . . It ties in with several other important topics, not necessarily directly including the Black Lives Matter movement, but it relates to how we conduct science and how we can be more just. Parachute science is something that a lot of people are aware of. Maybe they didn’t think that it was a bad practice, maybe they thought it’s part of the system to behave in this way, or maybe even if they thought that it wasn’t a good thing to do, maybe they didn’t know the extent of it. Because of that, we thought to try to quantify this phenomenon in our field of work, which is coral reefs, but I’m sure the results are applicable to other fieldwork-based studies as well. 

:  What were the main findings from your study?

PS: First of all, we tried to see how many coral reef biodiversity studies were published in general throughout the globe and tried to compare it against how much coral reef does each country actually have. Does it match? The top ten countries with the most coral reef biodiversity output were usually high-income nations, and it wasn’t because they necessarily had a lot of coral reefs—it’s just because they have more resources for fieldwork. And in many cases, it could be parachute science–related. One thing we found was that there was this mismatch between area and research output. And then we wanted to look specifically using authorship patterns as a proxy of parachute science. It’s not necessarily the only way of looking at parachute science, but [it’s] the one that we chose. 

Paris Stefanoudis
Robert Carmichael (Global Sub Dive)

If a study had fieldwork in a country, were there any scientists from that country included? If there weren’t any, that was a sign of parachute science. We focused on Australia, the Philippines, and Indonesia because they have the most coral reefs in the world in terms of area. We saw that when you were looking at lower- to middle-income nations such as the Philippines and Indonesia, the exclusion of host nation scientists was twice as common compared to Australia.

We also looked at another metric, which we termed research leadership. Even if you include host nation scientists, are they sandwiched somewhere in the middle in terms of coauthors or are they the first author or the last author? Because those two spots in the authorship indicate that there was some sort of leadership. Again, if you were comparing Australia, a high-income nation, with Indonesia and the Philippines, you have more [local] authors not leading studies [in these latter countries]. So that was another indication that you have more parachute science in lower-income nations. 

The top ten countries with the most coral reef biodiversity output were usually high-income nations, and it wasn’t because they necessarily had a lot of coral reefs.

—Paris Stefanoudis, University of Oxford and the Nekton Foundation 

ST: One of the things that surprised me was being able to see that in numbers. I think we have these conversations around parachute science and what it means, but being able to see it quantified was really interesting—and also the aspect of leadership. Whilst there is change that is happening if you look at the past and now, we still have a lot of work to do within our scientific field to ensure that it’s not just inclusion of scientists from host nation countries, but it’s also leadership. How do we mentor those leadership skills and leadership within research? It’s essentially getting in touch with scientists that are working already within those nation countries and collaboratively coming up with research projects. 

TS: Looking at the trends in the study, it seemed like parachute science had maybe decreased over the last few decades. Was that the case?  

PS: Looking at absolute numbers, it did seem that the direction of the trend is positive. Parachute science is getting less common as we move on, and that’s probably related to attitudes hopefully changing. Or if we’re being more cynical, in some cases it might be a prerequisite of your grant, that you actually have to engage with researchers from a host nation. Probably because of both of those things, it has been decreasing. But it’s still there. And even if it happens at a very small percentage, or smaller than in the ’70s or ’80s, it still shouldn’t be there. 

TS: What are some recommendations for scientists to avoid parachute science? 

PS: The first thing that is really important is to actually try to . . . engage with local researchers. And you can do this by engaging with local governments, and they can tell you which researchers might be most suitable for your work. And once you have identified those [people], it’s really important to sit down together and try and actually frame the research agenda together so that you have questions that are interesting for you but also for the people that are actually living there. . . . It’s also really important not to only focus on established scientists from that nation, but also the younger generation as well, because ultimately they will be the ones taking marine science forward in the decades to come. So it’s really important to engage with them and in many cases try to establish some sort of exchange initiative where they will be conducting research at your institution and vice versa. 

There is another issue of high paywalls in terms of accessing literature, so sometimes that can be prohibitive depending on where you go. If you have literature that you can share with host nation scientists, then that’s really useful. And vice versa, they will probably have information and access to a lot of literature that might be in local journals or technical reports that might not necessarily be available in Google Scholar. And finally . . . the regulatory landscape, being always sure to know what the regulations are where you go. We saw that only one out of four studies mentioned research permits.

Sheena Talma
Sarah Hammond

ST: I think it all comes down to: when you’re actively conducting science, it needs to be done in a collaborative way, which means that you have to have the spirit of partnership at the forefront. Being able to mentor people from the host nation if that is needed, especially younger scientists, or creating the space where you can amplify other scientists’ voices, but also enabling host nation scientists to be part of the decisions with regards to what kind of research is going to take place. Personally, I’ve had situations where a researcher will approach me, but they’ve already applied for the funding, they’ve already put down the questions. And essentially you become a token on that application. Oftentimes it isn’t done in a harmful way, but it does have harmful repercussions. So I think those are some of the main points from my perspective. Parachute science is complex. It’s multilayered, it’s historical. [The solution] is more than just including scientists in publications or on part of a project; it’s about actively building your partnerships and building your relationships, not just with the host country, but with the scientists who live there. And it’s most of all about enabling skill sharing and investing in up-and-coming talents. 

See “Steps to End “Colonial Science” Slowly Take Shape

TS: Do you have any final thoughts you’d like to discuss?

[The solution] is more than just including scientists in publications or on part of a project; it’s about actively building your partnerships and building your relationships.

—Sheena Talma, the Nekton Foundation

PS: Sometimes it’s what we do next which is interesting. This is a discussion-setting piece and the hope is that going forward we will be able to have a more serious discussion about best research practices and eliminating parachute science, not only in terms of recommendations to researchers and recommendations to publishers that we have in our paper, but also to try and have some sort of framework within academic institutions, within funding institutions, within ethics committees, to actually have those checks and balances in place that make sure [that parachute science doesn’t happen]. Because right now this is allowed to happen at an institutional level and this should ideally be stopped.  

ST: Accessibility is a huge issue, the way we publish. Sometimes work is done within a country, yet the scientists that work within that country have no access to those papers that were produced using the data from that country. So it’s institutional, it’s multilayered. We just have to tackle one aspect of it at a time, and we have to be proactive about it.  

P.V. Stefanoudis et al., “Turning the tide of parachute science,” Curr Biol, doi:10.1016/j.cub.2021.01.029, 2021.

Editor’s note: The interview was edited for brevity.