Moving Beyond Parachute Science in Coral Reef Research

Written by Evan Quinter

One of the many perks of working in marine science is the natural beauty of our study sites. Although each environment has its unique aesthetic qualities, from the expansive open ocean to the brutal magnificence of the polar caps, coral reefs are particularly renowned for their otherworldly coloration and significance for coastal communities. For a landlocked city-born resident like myself, any chance to study stunning reef ecosystems is a validation of the capabilities of the natural world and the necessity for their preservation.

Figure 1 showcases the rich visual beauty of coral reef ecosystems

But these opportunities require scientists to travel to reef-rich countries, resulting in foreign researchers literally dropping onto a host country’s community and resources. In this form of “parachute science”, the “…international scientists, typically from higher-income countries, conduct field studies in another country, typically of lower income, and then complete the research in their home country without any further effective communication and engagement with others from that nation.” Parachute science is apparent in other professional realms, but in marine research it burdens a significant weight onto the reef’s ecosystem services without a meaningful investment in the dependent coastal communities. Due to a recent study on this subject, we can now quantifiably see the effects of parachute science on the global network of coral reef research. 

In the February 2021 edition of Current Biology, an international team of marine scientists released a study focusing on the influence of parachute science within research literature. The authors (Stefanoudis, et al.) conducted a meta-analysis of global warm-water coral reef biodiversity papers over the past 50 years, while additionally narrowing their focus to the top three nations with the most tropical coral reef areas: Indonesia, Australia, and the Philippines. By recording the authorship of these articles, the researchers discretely demonstrated authorship discrepancies between host country and foreign scientists.

Figure 2 depicts the result of the Stefanoudis et al. study, illustrating a clear difference in countries with tropical coral reef publications and largest coral reef habitat area. Photo credit to Stefanoudis et al.

Their results reflect issues of economic and power inequity between various countries. Of the top ten highest producing study countries, only two are not considered “high-income nations (based on gross national income).” Additionally, Germany and Canada, two of the top aforementioned countries, have no tropical coral reef systems within their Exclusive Economic Zones, indicating their total reliance on other nations to conduct fieldwork. Regarding the three countries with the most reef area, 40% of publications with fieldwork conducted in Indonesia or the Philippines excluded host nation scientists from author credits. The research highlights how the power dynamics in our own field shift scientific credit away from host nation scientists and communities. Although there has been an upward trend in positive host nation representation over the past 10 years, the disengagement with coastal communities reveals continual parachute and colonial science patterns between the Global North and the South.

Fortunately, the study’s authors present various ways to reduce parachute science. Perhaps the most critical strategy is to engage with local scientists. This participation goes beyond just ascribing lead authorship to the local ecosystem’s experts. It means including host scientists throughout the research process for a more equitable power hierarchy. In addition to the academic wisdom of any researcher, host nation scientists would also be able to provide location-specific information and serve as the connection between the local community and the global scientific system. We can see this host nation scientist-community relationship is particularly important for knowledge exchange, which can be difficult for outside actors. This includes various realms of sustainability knowledge, as coastal communities developed systems of knowledge beyond Eurocentric science typical of Global North scientists. From the community perspective, the local residents need to be consulted for any international coral reef study to ensure research projects are relevant and useful for those who live near the study sites. 

True investments in coastal communities, ranging from training opportunities to knowledge exchange, invoke long-term success for research projects, which is helpful during resource or travel restrictions. But more importantly, real engagement with the host community is working toward a more just and equitable collaboration that centers local sustainability solutions. A recent example of this cooperation is the Kenya Water Hyacinth project with Ecologists Without Borders (EWB). This project is based in Homa-Bay County off the coast of Lake Victoria to tackle the invasion of water hyacinth, an aquatic plant that obstructs local fisheries and proliferates water-borne diseases. EWB is working together with Kenyan representatives, from governmental, academic, and community realms, to directly pay local community members to harvest water hyacinth, which are turned into new forms of fertilizer and biogas (Full disclosure, I have volunteered with EWB on different projects). Although not perfect, the Kenya Water Hyacinth project exemplifies a more just foreign actor-host community relationship that centers ecological solutions which also benefit the local coastal community, a research standard we need to retain and build upon in coral reef science.

Figure 3 shows water hyacinth completely surrounding boats, obstructing their mobility and ability to fish. Photo credit to EcoWB and EcoJulieDaq

As we continue to grapple with the global issues of climate change, the marine science community will need to come together and collaborate through our collective realms of knowledge. The power inequalities of parachute science can only restrict science. To ensure an equitable future, we need to break down the patterns of parachute science and conduct coral reef science through more just practices. I believe this sentiment is best expressed by Sheena Talma, one of the lead authors on the parachute science paper: “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.”

To learn more about the study and parachute science, check out the links below:

Q&A: Parachute Science in Coral Reef Research | The Scientist Magazine® (the-scientist.com)

Steps to End “Colonial Science” Slowly Take Shape | The Scientist Magazine® (the-scientist.com)

If you’d like to learn more about Ecologists Without Borders, check out their website below:

Ecologists Without Borders | Be the Change You Want to See (ecowb.org)

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