Note from Brian: This is a guest post from Isabela Borges, a Brazilian who completed part of her undergraduate degree in Canada and is now exploring where to pursue a graduate degree. 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 third in that series.
As a Brazilian who spent the past few years studying ecology and evolution in Canada, I’ve thought a lot about the differences between doing science in developed and developing countries*. I grew up in Rio de Janeiro, where I started my undergraduate work before transferring to Canada to complete my degree, and am now back in Brazil considering where to continue my education. Having navigated both worlds, I’ve had the great privilege of seeing first-hand how science is conducted and perceived in these countries. Pavel and Falko already gave an overview of how ecology is done in developing countries, so I thought I could talk a bit about the contrasts between Brazil and Canada that most affected my experience as a student.
The main contrast is obvious and outside of academics’ control. In the past few years, the Brazilian government has cut investments in science to an extreme, irresponsible, and cruel extent. The fact that Brazilian academia has continued to be productive speaks to the amazing resourcefulness and persistence of its members, but shouldn’t distract from the disastrous consequences that those cuts will have. Researchers are being forced to cancel projects, students can’t count on scholarships and stipends to be paid, and the strikes needed to protest it all lead to even more delays in production and graduation. I cannot imagine my Canadian peers sharing most of the concerns my friends and I have about Brazilian academia in terms of job security and quality of life. Delayed paychecks, unsafe conditions, political instability – these are issues affecting undergraduates and tenured professors alike. I know there are problems in the practice of science in developed countries as well, but the situation in North America and Europe still seems utopic in comparison.
In many ways, studying ecology in Brazil will always be wonderful. We have some of the world’s most diverse ecosystems, species, and landscapes. Our scientific community is superb in both production and engagement. The reality, however, is that current working conditions drain a tremendous amount of energy that could otherwise be used to generate knowledge. Things that once seemed ordinary here – the utter lack of safety on campus, the frequency of fires and chemical emergencies, scarce and ancient equipment – now strike me as unfair and unacceptable. For me, it means that leaving feels selfish and staying feels complicit. The problems are so ingrained into the fabric of the country, I don’t think there is enough resistance that can be enacted within academia to change much – and who wants to go into politics**?
Academically, the combination of perks and hardships of doing biology in a developing country has direct consequences to how students spend their energy. In Brazil, the most passionate work I saw came from undergraduates putting together outreach events and spearheading local conservation and sustainability initiatives. The fact that I was attending a public university in difficult economic and political times emphasized the need for these institutions to be arenas for short-to-medium-term problem solving, and I grew to greatly admire my peers’ involvement in societal issues. Being part of that community was what made me love biology, and I assumed this would be the general atmosphere of student communities elsewhere. When I got to Canada, however, the focus seemed entirely academic. I completely lost touch with that sense of urgency and accountability towards non-academic issues.
All things considered, Canada has more or less figured out how to be a safe democracy, and this had a larger effect on me than I would have predicted when I first moved. The general lack of interest in outreach and applied initiatives was disappointing at first, but I quickly got used the privilege of living in a more functional country, and let my own interest slip. The increased focus on hypothesis-driven research was surprising and fascinating to me. It was present in all the research opportunities I had, advised by North American PIs, with North American peers and funds. The biases I absorbed about the differences in prestige between descriptive/applied research and hypothesis-driven/theoretical work has obviously influenced my preference for the latter, but in a way that I can’t untangle from my own personal taste. Now that I’m back home, the pull of North American academia is weaker and the issues of my country are clearer – and I’m finding it difficult to be as excited about doing work that seems disconnected from the everyday realities of where I live.
In Canada, I got to do research in different labs, fieldwork in different countries, and get paid for my work. At every step of the way, I heard from friends back home who were stuck in labs where they didn’t want to be because there wasn’t funding to go elsewhere, who didn’t have a reliably functioning library, and were often without class due to water or power outages on campus***. That mix of experiences gave me insights about these separate academic worlds that are now weighting on me as I try to sort out my grad school aspirations, along with the geography of the next few years of my life.
I think these decisions are harder to make in developing countries, where there is so much more uncertainty and, at least for me, a weird one-sided relationship with a nation that you desperately want to help grow but that doesn’t support you in your own development. Wherever I go next, I know I want to end up back home. I hope having an international perspective can make me a better, more aware and responsible scientist for Brazil.
* I know there are many issues with those designations, but, for the sake of brevity, I’ll use them anyway. Given how I’m only discussing my (limited, westernized) experience, what I mean by developed and developing are North America/Europe and Latin America/Africa, respectively.
** If US politics makes you hopeless, check out Brazil’s last 3 years.
*** Rio de Janeiro was one of the states most affected by Brazil’s economic crisis, which had huge impacts on its Federal and State universities, where my friends are. I can’t really speak for the situation in other parts of the country.