Category Archives: Trickle Down Science

Research brain drain from the global south

The Director of the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London, Dr Adam Habib, recently argued that universities in the global north are taking the best and the brightest from the global south and failing to return them.

360info asked me to reflect on this for a special issue on the education brain drain, and write about it from the perspective of research in the global south. What I wrote builds on previous ideas I’ve published and blogged about around the idea of “trickle down science” and decolonising research. This is an edited version of the 360info article.

The indigenous Bajau Laut of southeast Asia live a nomadic existence at sea. They have lived on houseboats for more than 1,000 years, free-diving for marine resources to sustain themselves. Research on the human genetic changes that allowed the Bajau Laut to adapt to this life at sea was published in 2019 in Cell. All but one of the article’s authors came from developed economies. The one Indonesian researcher had no relevant disciplinary background and appeared to be logistical support. The Indonesian government saw the study as exploitative and legislated to restrict overseas researchers from fly-in, fly-out, “grab the data and run” research. 

It’s an example of a common problem: the world’s poorest economies suffer health and development deficits that require research, but they are least likely to do research. When they do research with developed economy collaborators, it is often not the most relevant research to the developed economy.

The highest-income economies graduate the most PhDs per capita — the principal qualification for researchers — whilst the poorest economies graduate the least. The current stop-gap solution, critiqued by Dr Habib, is for developing economies to send their best and brightest students away to overseas PhD programs, often in developed economies. But the PhD experience in developed economies is usually geared towards research training involving sophisticated techniques and equipment unavailable at home. The student cannot replicate the research environment when they return to their home institutions and fall into an intellectual suzerainty. 

A supplementary approach to improving research capacity is through research collaborations. Many developed economy researchers enjoy the opportunity to collaborate with developing economy researchers. The developed economy researchers offer much-needed injections of capital and equipment; they can also provide experience using the latest collection techniques or analytic methods. Through the collaborations, developing economy researchers grow their skills and their networks. They are also much more likely to become authors of well-cited journal articles, which improves their international standing. 

However, significant concerns have been raised recently about the nature of the research collaborations between developed and developing economies. The concerns pivot on whether the relationship is exploitative. Are the collaborators from developing economies equal partners in the research, or are they logistical support, as in the case of the Bajau Laut study? Improving research capacity in developing economies needs to be realistic about the challenges and the structural deficits. There needs to be mutual respect. And it needs to be resilient to foreseeable and unforeseeable shocks. 

Around 10-years ago, the Wellcome Trust funded a project to establish a virtual institute for interdisciplinary research of infectious diseases of poverty in four countries (five institutions) in West Africa. Two developed economy institutions provided support. Nigeria and Mali had Boko Haram insurgencies during the project, and Côte d’Ivoire had a coup. Unfortunately, these external shocks are not atypical examples of the challenges of research capacity strengthening.

Political upheaval notwithstanding, the North-South-South (NSS) approach taken in developing the virtual institute was promising. The project networked developing economy institutions with some developed economy institutions, and it focused on the institutes, not on individual researcher capacity—which is easily lost. It is more holistic and looks to the development of infrastructure, governance, and human capital. Because the approach is based on a multilateral partnership, there are opportunities for mutual support within and between institutions and individual researchers. Governance developments in one institution can be replicated and adapted in another. Depending on the nature of the research, infrastructure can also be shared, such as cloud computing and gene sequencers.

The Norwegian government uses this approach, as does the World Health Organization, albeit in a slightly different form. The NSS approach also stands in marked contrast to supporting one-off projects or funding individual research degrees. The NSS PhD training is based in the developing economy institutions with support from the developed economy institutions in the network, including support from supervisors in the developing economies institutions. The approach simultaneously builds the developing economies’ supervisory capacity and decreases the likelihood of brain drain. The research is also driven by the relevance of the research to the developing economies and utilises technology that is available. 

It is not possible to mandate mutual respect. Developed economy institutions that have been successful over the past half-century in the traditional engagement models — “send your brightest and we will train them”, or “here’s some money, send the data” — may find changes in the status quo unappealing. However, there is no doubt that the NSS approach requires a different mindset, particularly in the institutions of the global north. The research capacity needs of the global south are enormous. The traditional approaches can not meet the needs because they do not scale. New global north institutional players will be needed, and they won’t have the baggage of past practice to weigh them down.

The original article was published under Creative Commons by 360info™. This is an edited version.

Local causation and implementation science

If you want to move a successful intervention from here (where it was first identified) to there (a plurality of new settings), spend your time understanding the context of the intervention. Understand the context of success. Implementation Science—the science of moving successful interventions from here to there—assumes a real (in the world effect) that can be generalised to new settings. In our latest (open access) article, recently published in Social Science and Medicine, we re-imagine that presumption.

As researchers and development specialists, we are taught to focus on causes as singular things: A causes B. Intervention A reduces infant mortality (B1), increases crop yields (B2), keeps girls in school longer (B3), or…. When we discover the new intervention that will improve the lives of the many, we naturally get excited. We want to implement it everywhere. And yet, the new intervention so often fails in new settings. It isn’t as effective as advertised and/or it’s more expensive. The intervention simply does not scale-up and potentially results in harm. Effort and resources are diverted from those things that already work better there to implement the new intervention, which showed so much promise in the original setting, here.

The intervention does not fail in new settings because the cause-effect never existed. It fails in new settings because causes are local. The effect that was observed here was not caused by A alone. The intervention was not a singular cause. A causes B within a context that allows the relationship between cause and effect to be manifest. The original research in which A was identified had social, economic, cultural, political, environmental, and physical properties. Some of those properties are required for the realisation of the cause-effect. This means that generalisation is really about re-engineeering context. We need to make sure the target settings have the the right contextual factors in place for the intervention to work. We are re-creating local contexts. The implementation problem is one of understanding the re-engineering that is required.


The cartographic challenge of decolonising global health

A navigational chart from the Marshall Islands, on display at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive. It is made of wood, sennit fibre and cowrie shells. From the collection of the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley. Date not known. Photo by Jim Heaphy. (Wikipedia; CC BY-SA 3.0)

There are a growing number of papers in the peer-reviewed literature about decolonising global health (see). Pascale Allotey and I have discussed the problem in terms of “trickle-down science” (also see). That is, the way (global health) science is done, how it is prioritised, and who is advantaged. It is a description of science generally conceived and managed from powerful institutions in the global north, with implementing partners in the global south, their factories for data collection. We have also critiqued critiques that advocate a utopic version of global health, arguing that:

decolonising global health extends beyond relations between [low- and middle-income countries] LMICs and [high-income countries] HICs; it is also about the relationships within them. Decolonisation is fundamentally about redressing inequity and power imbalance.

The latest offering on the altar of peer review is a three-step roadmap to the decolonisation of global health and a call to join the authors on their journey. Maps, however, are tricky things. They are culture-bound and themselves tools of colonisation. Their design, content, and what they highlight and ignore require a shared and agreed understanding of the path and the goal. Woe betide the European sailor trying to navigate using the Marshall Islands stick chart.

Much as I applaud the idea of redressing the power imbalance in global health, this particular attempt is tone-deaf. It is presented as if decolonisation was waiting for six authors from three of the world’s wealthiest countries to explain it to “the colonies”. Readers will forgive the irony that the first and last authors of the roadmap are at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) — an institution established to support the colonial administration of the world’s greatest empire — an institution that, to this day, encourages and benefits from neocolonial relationships with the global south. The authors note these kinds of relationships and bravely forge on.

In developing the roadmap, the authors draw parallels with the feminist movement. An apt analogy (tongue firmly in cheek) because who cannot recall the importance to the feminist movement of first having men in power explain how it should be done? The men were so quick to relinquish their power that one barely remembers the days of gender inequality. Who does not know (tongue back behind teeth) that women of privilege often powered the first and second waves of feminism? The movement systematically failed to account for class differences, colour lines, and culture — leaving many women behind—the voice matters.

Who has the right to speak for whom in global health is a challenge. In a previous article, I wrote about this very issue. Fighting over the legitimacy of the voice is always fraught, and passions can run high. Are voices from some countries/institutions with this or that history as a colonial master or servant more or less valued than others? Is it more or less hypocritical to privilege voices from LSHTM, Johns Hopkins University, or the University of Washington over those from Makarere University, the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, or the Oswaldo Cruz Institute?

“Decolonising” is ultimately about forgoing power and transferring power. It is something that has to happen between countries and within countries. There is a cacophony of voices, all of which should be heard — but they are not equally important. They do not all warrant the same time and space. The authors of “the roadmap” are neither transferring nor forgoing power. As the cartographers, they determine the path, the points of interest, and the rest stops.

The roadmap for decolonising global health should not be determined nor led by countries and institutions simultaneously holding the whip and the chum.

#decolonising #decolonising #globalhealth.

With any piece I write about decolonising global health, I always have two competing voices in my head: “this issue is important, say it” and “should I be the one saying it?” I will declare my conflicts, and you can decide if you want to listen to or shoot the messenger. I am a white male born in (not by choice) the British Colony of Southern Rhodesia. In virtue of privilege and choice, I have lived and worked in Australia and the UK, and for the last 12 years, Malaysia and Bangladesh. My partner and I moved to Southeast Asia. Then I moved to South Asia because we were committed to capacity building and decided it was no longer appropriate to work in the global health space while sitting in a high-income country. I have never held appointments at LSHTM, Johns Hopkins University, or the University of Washington.

The original article was first published on on 26 March 2021. This version is very slightly edited.

Indonesia pushes back against trickle down science

A recent article in Science Magazine (July 2019) described changes to Indonesian laws regulating the way that foreign scientists can do science in Indonesia. The laws are, in essence, a push back against “trickle down science“, in which scientist in Global North Institutions engage in colonial science. This is what happens when Global North researchers engage local institutions to provide service scientists and easy access to samples without any genuine consideration for their Global South collaborators.

The implications of the new law are still uncertain, but it may affect one of the studies on which I am in investigator. The change in the law means that

[Foreign scientists] need to get ethical clearance from an Indonesian review board for every study (although some types of studies may be exempted), submit primary data and published papers to the government, involve Indonesian scientists as equal partners, and share any benefits, such as the proceeds from new drugs, resulting from the study. Researchers can’t take samples or even digital information out of the country, except for tests that cannot be done in Indonesian labs, and to do so, they need a so-called material transfer agreement (MTA) using a template provided by the government. (Rochmyaningsih, 2019)

A Bajaut Laut community in Sabah, Malaysia. It was a study in a community like this one in Indonesia that sparked a debate about subaltern science.

It is hard to fault any of the new requirements. Of course there should be ethical clearance and of course the clearance should come from the country in which the science is being done. Lodging the data and the papers seems like a reasonable idea. The Indonesian governments wants papers and data lodged with the them; a bolder and more constructive approach may be for data and papers to be lodged in accessible repositories. Of course Global North researchers should have in-country scientists as partners and of course the collaborators should be equal partners — not pretend equal partners, but actual, equal partners. Of course the benefits of the science should flow to all the countries engaged in the science. These are not high hurdles to jump unless the scientists from the Global North thought they should be able to arrive, collect samples, and run … which would never happen, right?

I could have predicted the kind of response that has already begun with the announcement of the Indonesian law, because I have heard the responses before. Indonesia (or insert the name of your favourite Global South country here) doesn’t have the capacity to do the research that we want to do. It wasn’t the research idea of the scientists in Indonesia, it was our idea. These new laws will destroy science in Indonesia, because any credible Northern researchers will move to a more accommodating country; i.e., a more readily exploitable country. Every single one of these responses condemns the person who utters them, because each one shows a complete lack of commitment to genuine, scientific collaboration.

The issue of #trickledownscience seems to have come to a head in Indonesia with the publication of an article in Cell — the high impact factor (36.2) journal in experimental biology. The article, reported a study of genetic adaptations to hypoxia in the Bajau Laut people, a nomadic, sea-dwelling community in Southeast Asia. The article is fascinating and well worth a read, and the authors should be congratulated on a great piece of science! The problem is not with the findings, it is with the process of Northern Scientists going to far flung places to do their research without any genuine engagement or collaboration with local scientists. There are 17 authors listed on the paper and with only one exception they come from Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, the UK and the US. The exception is author #15, an Indonesian who is and education researcher and has no background in genetics or cell biology, and whose contribution was to “provide logistical support”. Author #15 comes from Tompotika Luwuk Banggai University — a small, private institution in Central Sulawesi; underscoring the lack of genuine collaborative intent, Tompotika’s university ranking is 498 in Indonesia and 12,999 in the World. This is a far-cry from, to give one example, the more relevant and credible Eijkman Institute for Molecular Biology in Jakarta.

The publication of the article received good coverage in The New York Times, and less desirable coverage in Science Magazine. The heart of the problem is revealed in a comment by Melissa Ilardo, who was the doctoral student on the study and the first author of the Cell paper. Commenting on the controversy, she said, “I did everything I could to conduct this research ethically and properly, and this is breaking my heart”. I truly feel for her. To be a young (post-)doctoral student and have to go through this kind of scrutiny would be awful. But just think about Ilardo’s idea of “doing everything” to conduct the research properly. What does it mean to conduct oneself properly when the #trickledownscience relationship is a profoundly colonial one. The study looks a lot like the modern day equivalent of the Elgin Marbles; however, instead of retrieving (stealing?) ancient artefacts, Global North reseaerchers  collect biological samples.

The new Indonesian law is probably too heavy handed, but it is in the right direction. There is little doubt that there is a problem with #trickledownscience, and governments in the Global North, funders, and institutions need to push the nascent dialogue with the Global South about how appropriate, collaborative science can develop that addresses the needs of the Global South and not the whimsies of scientists in the Global North.

I predict it will be those Global North institutions that tackle this issue head-on that will be the most successful. It does require that they give up a little power to retain a little power, and it begins by negotiating genuinely, collaborative arrangements that address (1) the most pressing scientific questions in the Global South, (2) the building of capacity in the Global South, (3) sustainable funding for research in the Global South, and (4) sustainable, collaborative research relationships between the Global North and the Global South.

I was trying to imagine what the response in the US would be if a group of Indonesian, Nepali, and Tanzanian scientists arrived in the US to collect saliva samples from a Hasidic community in upstate New York or an Amish community in Pennsylvania. A young academic at a local community college would provide “logistical support” and facilitate obtaining ethical clearance from the college’s Institutional Review Board. The samples would be collected from the community and shipped back to the Eijkman Institute in Jakarta for analysis. A paper would subsequently appear in Nature detailing some interesting genetic variations associated with the communities. Would the science be celebrated in the The New York Times or would someone have a WTF moment and question how this could ever happen?

I am looking forward to that studying being done. Will NIH fund it, I wonder?