Reflections on Parachute Science

Monterey Bay, CA – The shallows of a kelp forest, as seen by one of my dive buddies. (Photo credit: Michael Langhans)

 

It’s always been easy for me to get lost in the enchantment of fieldwork. Most of my fieldwork experience has been underwater, in kelp forests, where the pulse of social media and the urgency of modern communication get replaced by the oscillations of the waves. In this state, I always felt fully present with my thoughts. But while I was engrossed in the details of the kelp forest, I was detached from the bigger picture of the relationship between marine sciences and the communities onshore.

I was hired as a seasonal SCUBA technician for a long-term subtidal monitoring project in California and had to travel around the coast as part of my job. I was fully engaged in what I was hired to do. In hindsight, however, I wished I had engaged with the project values, goals, and overarching research process more fully. How did the leaders of this fieldwork engage with other people who care about and rely on coastal ecosystems? What was their approach to collaboration? Were the priorities of our research aligned with those of the coastal communities in which we conducted fieldwork? No matter the answer to these questions, the act of asking and stoking conversation would have been useful.

While this fieldwork and these questions arose years ago, I was forced to return to similar questions last month, during a class session in the SAFS course called, “The Dark Side of Hot Topics: The Settler-colonial and Racist History of Fishery and aquatic Sciences.” I was introduced to the term “parachute science,” and our conversation shook me. I was living that movie scene where the protagonist’s life flashes before their eyes before they die, except all my previous fieldwork flashed before me, and the only things dying were my assumptions about the inherent benignity of ecological research.

Parachute science—also called helicopter science, neo-colonial science, or safari study—is when “scientists from elsewhere (typically a developed country or non-Indigenous group) conduct research in a developing country or on Indigenous land with the help of local infrastructure and local knowledge, and proceed to publish those results without strong involvement of the local scientists or knowledge owners and without structural improvement of local communities”, as described by van Groenigen and Stoof. This mode of science exists across multiple fields of study, for example, in human genomic, coral reef, geoscience, and public health research. In past public health crises like Zika virus and Ebola, extractive parachute science and withholding data reduced emergency response effectiveness and the ability to combat future outbreaks.

While it’s easy to see the maleficence of parachute science when it leads to poor response to viral outbreaks, the threat of parachute science within marine contexts is not as easily recognizable. However, in the act of simply collecting data, parachute researchers can profoundly harm local communities. Dr. Asha de Vos, a Sri Lankan marine biologist and founder of Oceanswell, writes in Scientific American that this kind of research “creates a dependency on external expertise and cripples local conservation efforts. The work is driven by the outsiders’ assumptions, motives and personal needs, leading to an unfavorable power imbalance between those from outside and those on the ground.”

Late 18th-century technical illustrations of the parachute, from “Le premier parachute de Jacques Garnerin, essayé par lui-même au parc de Mousseaux, le 22 octobre 1797,” or “The first parachute of Jacques Garnerin, tried out by himself at Mousseaux Park, on October 22, 1797.” (Image credit: Library of Congress, Tissandier Collection)

 

For many ecological researchers who travel thousands of miles to conduct fieldwork as part of long-term ecological monitoring efforts, it has taken travel restrictions imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic to realize the drawbacks of parachute science. Seattle journalist Wudan Yan points out that, “while critics have long pointed out that parachute science is unethical, the global pandemic has revealed that it is impractical, too.” Many long-term datasets, which are critical to showing trends and causation in ecological change, will forever have a data gap in 2020, and any hopes of having a perfectly continuous dataset have evaporated.

While this gap is frequently being attributed to the pandemic, the root cause (that the pandemic simply revealed), in many situations, is parachute science. The COVID-19 pandemic has been a spotlight, illuminating the inequalities across the globe. From racial and class disparities in access to healthcare and vaccines to the ability to safely continue work, the pandemic has been a rude awakening to the vulnerabilities and inequities inherent to the functioning of our society.

To combat the exploitation of local capacity and resources, some countries have begun to impose sanctions on how foreign researchers conduct studies within their country. Because of instances like unethical genetic research performed on the “sea nomads” of Sulawesi, Indonesia passed legislation in 2019 that requires every study conducted in the country to be “beneficial for Indonesia,” acquire ethical clearance, share data and published papers, involve Indonesian scientists, and not remove any biological samples unless they’ve acquired a material transfer agreement.

People across the globe are delineating how researchers can push beyond the legacy of parachute science and into a new era of responsible research collaboration, so that governments don’t need to resort to laws for ethical foreign research practices. Within marine science, Hind and colleagues describe four focal areas for international marine science collaboration: aligning priorities, building long-term relationships, enhancing local capacity, and sharing research products (a detailed list of recommendations is available here). Other researchers similarly call for a “roots, not parachutes” approach to research on infectious diseases to establish pathogen surveillance capacity and enable quick responses.

An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump, by Joseph Wright of Derby, 1768. The painting has become an allegory for reflexivity in the sciences. (Image credit: National Gallery of London, in the public domain)

 

Although parachute science is usually described in international contexts, where the opportunity for colonial research practices and exploitation is most obvious, I’m starting to think of parachute science more broadly, as the absence of collaboration and capacity building in any topical or geographic context. It is described as “fly in, fly out” science, but if the same extractive mindset is applied to fieldwork in nearby communities, “drive in, drive out” science can be just as harmful.  To expand upon this idea I want to return to a snippet of Dr. Asha de Vos’ previously-mentioned quote about parachute science: “The work is driven by the outsiders’ assumptions, motives and personal needs…”  The term “outsider” can be applied across multiple scales, not just to a foreign scientist in a small-island state; it could apply to a University of Washington academic potentially performing parachute research in a Washington coastal fishing community. Because of this, the antidote to parachute science isn’t abandoning our international research for local research. It is examining our positions as researchers, and how we co-create and collaborate with communities.

The practice of reflexivity, which centers self-critical, responsive, and adaptable research, can therefore be a tool for dismantling parachute science, both locally and internationally. Even for relatively local research, our assumptions, motives, and personal needs will influence how we engage, co-create, or collaborate with local communities; how we conduct research; and how our research is ultimately used. So in addition to conducting science, analyzing our relationship to both our research and those whom our research impacts can be a necessary step toward acknowledging and addressing those assumptions, motives, and personal needs.

I invite you to join me as I ask reflexive questions of myself and my current and future research: Who does my research benefit? Who does it leave behind? How is it being used? What assumptions and knowledge systems underpin how and why I’ve conducted this research?

And if I’m not impressed with the answers, what steps will I take to change them?


** For access to journal articles cited in this piece that are not publicly available, contact Currents’ editor-in-chief:

North, M. A., Hastie, W. W., & Hoyer, L. (2020). Out of Africa: The underrepresentation of African authors in high-impact geoscience literature. Earth-Science Reviews, 208, 103262. doi: 10.1016/j.earscirev.2020.103262

 Rochmyaningsih, D. (2018). Study of “sea nomads” under fire in Indonesia. Science, 361(6400), 318-319. doi: 10.1126/science.361.6400.318