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:
- I could have written about how South Africa is defunding its progressive programme that awards research money based on researcher’s track records, rather than project proposals.
- Or about the more than 40 students arrested last month for attempted arson at my university. This is just the latest round of nation-wide student protests against high tuition fees that have flared up regularly since 2015 and have caused widespread instability, campus closures and damage to infrastructure totalling more that US$ 40 million.
- Not to mention how our president (who faces several hundred corruption charges) fired the government minister responsible for tertiary education because he supports an opposing political faction.
- All this national instability has meant that the value of the South African currency has fallen 8% since mid-October relative to the dollar. Anything we purchase from abroad has suddenly become 8% more expensive, including specialised equipment, open access fees, journal subscriptions, society memberships and conference fees.
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.