New scientific method: Reach out to the community
SAN FRANCISCO — It didn't take Gordon Frankie long to realize his study of the forests of Costa Rica couldn't be isolated from the local land-clearing practices that often let fires spread through them.
The harder part was doing something about the problem. But after years of effort, the University of California Berkeley professor of insect biology has helped protect those forests by encouraging the creation of a state-owned nature preserve and educating the locals in basic conservation management.
Professor Frankie's helping hand is part of an emerging ethic among US research scientists. Fast fading are the days when scientists, aloof and narrowly focused, swept into a country and considered their task complete when their notebooks and sample cases were full.
Replacing that philosophy is a belief that scientists have a responsibility beyond the pursuit of knowledge. It says they also need to help the communities that are their hosts, whether through sharing the knowledge gained, bolstering local science capabilities, or just doing things that improve the local quality of life.
"I tell them, visit the local school. Talk to the people. Hold some classes. Have an exchange of some kind and tell them what you're doing," says Jean Colvin, director of the University Research Expeditions Program in Davis, Calif.
UREP is one of the nation's pioneers in advocating "community involvement" as an essential part of research. A major funder of research affiliated with the University of California system, UREP is one of the first to use the ethic as a criterion in the evaluation of funding applications.
While UREP may be pushing the envelope, it's not alone.
"Starting 10 or 20 years ago, there has been a rather significant change, away from commando-style research where scientists just took what they wanted to something that involves more of a commitment," says Gary Hartshorn of the Organization for Tropical Studies at Duke University in Durham, N.C.
Part of the motivation is past mistakes. "The scientific field has done a lot of things improperly in the past, and now a lot of scientific groups are trying to remedy that," says Lars Bromley, project coordinator of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Consider the rosy periwinkles of Madagascar. In the 1950s, foreign researchers went to that island African nation, took specimens, and turned them into a multimillion-dollar pharmaceutical. Not a dime went to the impoverished islanders.
The scientific community is grappling with an expanding universe of ethical issues concerning the relationship between science and society as a whole. The World Science Conference in Budapest this spring will focus on "the service that science is to provide to society in the years and decades to come," according to UNESCO Director General Federico Mayor.
ONE of the largest gaps between scientist and citizen has traditionally existed on the ground, where research begins.
UREP's focus on community involvement began many years ago, when Professor Colvin was visiting a project in Ecuador where researchers were working in a nature reserve. Local residents not only had no knowledge of the reserve, but told Colvin they thought the scientists traipsing back and forth were "part of the baby trade," the rumored kidnapping and selling of babies to foreigners.
The evolution toward greater reciprocity in the research field has been gradual and uneven, and is being met, in some respects, by a push from the other end. Developing countries, backed by legal rights established in international conventions, are increasingly demanding compensation in the form of fees or royalty agreements before permitting foreign research. But it is unclear to what extent those benefits trickle down to the local communities.
For many researchers, getting involved with a community turns out to be an act of self-interest. Whether it's promoting conservation or understanding the history of a region, local knowledge can be highly valuable, say many researchers. Frankie's work in Costa Rica is ultimately aided when locals help protect the forests he's studying.
But UREP's ethics code goes further. It asks researchers not only to help the host country develop its own scientific infrastructure, but also to "help improve life in your research area."
A number of analysts in the field say that demand clearly goes beyond where the scientific community is at the moment.
But Glenn Russell of the Institute of Archaeology at UCLA says the UREP criteria are simply a reflection of wholesale changes in what is expected of research today.
"You have to justify your project in a way that is a lot less esoteric than it used to be," says Mr. Russell, who receives UREP funds for his work on prehistoric cultures in Peru. "You have to reach out to the public."