Guest post: doing ecology in South Africa

Note from Brian: This is a guest post from Falko Buschke a tenure-track faculty member in South Africa. A while back we had an ask us anything question on perceptions of ecology coming out of developing countries. This post stimulated a lot of discussion and it was suggested to solicit some first person experiences. This post is the second of what I hope will be several on this topic.

My mind started racing when I was approached to share my experiences as an ecologist from a developing country, South Africa. There were so many things I could write about that I soon became overwhelmed. So, rather than touching on several issues, I will focus on the single biggest obstacle I face as an early career researcher in a developing country.

But before that, here is a short list of topics I chose not include:

The reality is that these types of issues have become commonplace in South Africa and I suspect that they may be even more prevalent in other less-developed countries. But despite these serious concerns, folks from developing countries are resilient and manage to get on with doing good ecology.

Nevertheless, the biggest obstacle I face as an early career ecologist from a developing country is not one of these macro-level political or economic issues. My biggest roadblock is academic isolation and the accompanying feelings of inadequacy.

Before I go on, I need to describe my background because the easiest way to patronise folks from developing countries is to assume that we are all the same. I grew up in a rural part of South Africa, where only four out of every ten people complete high school. However, South Africa is one of the most unequal countries in the world and I was fortunately born as one of the few ‘haves’, rather than one of the many ‘have-nots’. I went to a good school and completed my BSc and masters at the closest university: a mid-ranking institution by South Africa standards. I then received a scholarship from the for a PhD in Belgium. After defending my PhD in 2014, I returned to South Africa to be closer to home and started in my current lecturing position (at the same mid-ranking university of my undergraduate studies).

Having spent time in Europe, the thing I miss most is the comaraderie. I went from being part of a huge research lab to being the only ecologist in my current department. Gone are the lunch-time discussions about ecology. Gone are the Friday afternoon seminars by visiting speakers. Gone are the envy-soaked congratulations to my peers who had their papers accepted by Science, Ecology Letters or Global Change Biology.

Now, the closest substitute for this cohort of like-minded ecology geeks is the comment section on Dynamic Ecology, which, while great, can’t replace the real thing.

I suppose many ecologists experience isolation after leaving graduate school, but I suspect it is worse in developing countries. A major worry of mine is building a research group because there isn’t a long queue of aspiring ecologists ready to join my team. Sadly, this is not due to a shortage of enthusiasm or ambition, but rather a bankruptcy of science capital. In an unequal country like South Africa, it is frightening how few of the students I now lecture had exposure to real science before they reached university.

My university did a study and found that only 60% of incoming undergraduates had the literacy levels expected from university students. Even more alarming was how 80% of students lacked the numeracy skills needed to succeed at university. This is a symptom of a schooling system crumbling under widespread national poverty. Poverty also means that the few students with sound science backgrounds tend to gravitate towards more lucrative fields like medicine or engineering, further limiting the number of new ecologists.

Good mentors are also hard to find. This is illustrated by what a friend of mine experienced during his first lectureship at one of South Africa’s leading universities. He was so excited to work in a department with some world-class ecologists, but left after a realising how these top ecologists were too busy with international collaborators to even notice the arrival of a new researcher. This dilemma is especially sad because it reinforces the perception that to be a good ecologist, you need to work with foreign collaborators. This alone is not the problem – the best ecology should be relevant internationally – but it feeds the misconception that ecology does not have value unless it includes inputs from abroad. Put another way, it reinforces the view that South African ecology is second-rate.

Being an early career ecologists is hard anywhere in the world. Insecurity is rife and we all feel like impostors sometimes. Coming from a country outside the traditional hubs of North America or Europe, makes feeling like an outsider much worse. Of course, many of the barriers I face are imagined; fed only by insecurity. But some barriers are real. All I hope is that readers of Dynamic Ecology get a small glimpse at being an ecologist in a developing country. Hopefully, you all see that we are real scientists working hard to improve ecology as a whole. We’re not asking for special treatment, we just want to be taken seriously as ecologists in our own right.


16 thoughts on “Guest post: doing ecology in South Africa

      • I think these tweets sum up my situation well.

        The post was not meant to be depressing. Being in South Africa has major perks (the weather, wildlife,being close to family), which is why I chose to come back home after my time in Europe. It certainly isn’t all doom and gloom!

  1. Falko – when you speak.of foreign collaborators, do you mean mostly collaborators from EU, USA etc? I’m wondering if international collaboration between developing countries would improve our research. I know of some collaborations of this sort, but I’m wondering how much more common they could be.

    Great post, by the way!

    • Thanks Pavel – I was referring to collaborators from the EU/UK/USA.

      Your question got me thinking though. I suspect that the choice of collaborators is a combination reputation and access to funding. I know that many European countries have research grants specifically for collaboration with developing countries, which is one reason why these collaborations are more sought after.

      While the intention of these programs is good, they don’t always work as intended. For example, I once withdrew from applying for one of these grants because even though I had written the proposal and would lead the project, the funding would be awarded to the European partner institution who were considered as the senior partners.

      I also know of South Africans who have built their careers on collaborations with other African countries. They get large grants from places like the UN or the African Union, but these projects are usually for teaching and capacity building, not research.

      One thing that we should perhaps chat about are these new multilateral grants specifically for BRICS countries (a call is currently open). I definitely see the potential value of a cross-continent studies between South Africa and Brazil (especially in the more temperate southern parts of Brazil, which would be more comparable to SA).

      This also reminded me of my favourite excerpt from the Origin of the Species: “We cannot maintain that such species have been created alike, in correspondence with the nearly similar physical conditions of the areas; for if we compare, for instance, certain parts of South America with parts of South Africa or Australia, we see countries closely similar in all their physical conditions, with their inhabitants utterly dissimilar.”

      • Cross-continental studies would be quite interesting! I know of a nice paper which studied African and Australian grassland. Got me thinking of something assessing South-American, African, Australian and Asian savannas…

        In Brazil it’s quite common for PhD students to spend some time abroad, mostly to analyze data and write manuscripts; we call it a sandwich PhD. Well, some people also collect data – I collected data in the Canadian tundra and have friends who collected data in Hawaii and in saltmarshes in the UK. But mostly we collect all data here. Do you have anything similar in South Africa?

        Ah, and just out of curiosity: Do you wear protection against snakes in the field? Here we always wear leather gaiters or rubber boots, so that a snake can’t bite our ankles. In all my years of fieldwork no snake ever tried, though – and I did pass quite near a few of them.

  2. Hi Falko, great post, I’m sure its challenging to more or less be on your own. The bright side – potentially – is that by shear lack of ecologists you are a leader in the field and may have a great opportunity to shape its future in your country.

    But really I wanted to ask about something more mundane. Do you work frequently around life-threatening fauna? If so, how do you protect yourself? I’ve worked in grizzly country here in North America. We used shotguns with slugs, but fortunately never had to fire the weapons.

    • Thank Jim – short answer, no, I personally don’t work around life-threatening fauna. The scariest animals I’ve come across during field work were snakes like puff adders and rinkhals (ring-necked spitting cobra). But they are pretty harmless if you keep your distance.

      Most of the dangerous large game species are limited to protected areas, so access for researchers is highly controlled.

      As far as I know, researchers won’t get permission to enter areas with dangerous game unless they accompanied by an armed qualified ranger or are qualified rangers themselves. I know very little about firearms, but the qualified rangers carry high-caliber rifles (the intention is to kill, not scare off).

      • Thanks, Falco. An armed guide! Cool. In grizzly country (the Canadian Rockies or Alaska) people make different choices – some carry pepper spray and others carry weapons. Either way its kind of a pain. But scientists have been seriously injured in attacks so its a serious matter.

        I’ve also worked in rattlesnake country but I don’t find them too troublesome.

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  6. Thanks for this article.
    The funny thing is that i found it by searching “South African Ecology” in google.
    You were on page 1. It really give echo to your point…

    I’m looking for a source of data relative to South Africa ecology, and especially about the evolution of the use of the lands since 1900. I would find details about the part of land been used for culture / livestock, and “free land” availability for wildlife. Is there a map of the current situation, that show current lands usages ?

    Thanks a lot!

  7. Pingback: Ask us anything: how can ecologists from developing countries be competitive on the international academic job market? | Dynamic Ecology

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