Systemic bias and “helicopter science” prevents global south scientists from being heard


In a slap to the entire scientific community and their ways of doing things, researchers from Carbon Brief found systemic bias in whose work gets published or recognized.


Checking backgrounds of 1300 authors involved in the 100 most cited climate change research papers during 2016-2020, they found  90% of them were from North America, Europe or Australia. Just 1% of authors were from Africa and only 12 had a female lead researcher. Again, of the 10 authors from Africa, 8 came from South Africa.


Ayesha Tandon who did the study said that if the vast majority of research around climate change was coming from people with very similar backgrounds such as male scientists from the global north, then the entire body of climate science will be skewed towards their interests, knowledge and training, calling into question the very foundation of the body of knowledge that is being used to increase our understanding of climate change and the fact that work from the large majority of people most affected by it is being ignored.


She further went on to state that “One study noted that a lot of our understanding of climate change is biased towards cooler climates, because it’s mainly carried out by scientists who live in the global north in cold climates”. Funding and opportunities also play a big role in shutting down scientists from the global south because they cannot afford the expensive computers that can run models that have now become the bedrock of climate predictive analytics. Teaching focus, lack of access to expensive libraries and data repositories are also contributing factors.


Even when there is collaboration, the northern scientists very often bring their own grad students and for them, the local partners are merely logistic, cultural, language and administrative facilitators and not scientific colleagues or collaborators said one Tanzanian scientist Dr Tuyeni Mwampamba, from the Institute of Ecosystems and Sustainability Research.


Researchers from the north are often seen as wanting to extract resources and data from developing nations without making any contribution to local research, a practice sometimes known as “helicopter science”.


Solving the problem is critical to climate science but as Ms. Tandon points out, “This is a systemic problem and it will progress and keep getting worse, because people in positions of power will continue to have those privileges and it won’t go away until people really start working at it”.

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