Doing Ecology in Brazil: the feeling of being almost there (and should we really want to be ‘there’)?

Note from Brian: This is a guest post from Thiago Silva a professor in the Geography department of São Paulo State University (UNESP), in Rio Claro, Brazil. 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 currently the last post on this topic (for a while at least). There have been a lot of common themes but also a lot of diverse perspectives. I encourage you to read them all!

So I had about 2400 words written about “Doing Ecology in Brazil”, after receiving Brian’s invitation to write this guest post (Thanks!). And I went on and on detailing the problems with funding, infrastructure, bureaucracy, and so on. Some of it echoed previous posts from Isabela, Pavel, Falko, and Marco, some was new. You can read it here, if you’d like, and it might help give context to what I say below. But as I wrote it, I kept having the feeling that “there was something else”, and when it hit finally hit me, I wrote this instead.

It is very noticeable that the posts were mostly negative, and focused on problems and frustrations. And from the start, I kept asking myself – “Why is this question being asked?”. No one would even think about asking “how much do scientists in the developed world contribute to ecological research?”, so the subtext is that scientists in developing countries are lacking in some aspect, and that begs questioning the importance of their contribution.

And it is true, we are lacking. In funds, in infrastructure, in opportunities, in stability, and so on. Everyone made that very clear. Although, let’s be honest, myself and the writers of the previous posts are still very privileged. Both Brazil and South Africa are part of the BRICS, and Brazil is the 9th largest economy in the world. We often receive exchange students from African countries at my university, and if you can ask them about research in Brazil, the picture will be way different. I remember witnessing a very heated argument between a bus driver and an African exchange student, who would just not accept the complaining by the driver and kept insisting that we had it great in Brazil. But we don need to go that far; just ask anyone working at a satellite campus of a smaller Brazilian university, somewhere in the interior of the poorest Brazilian states. Their reality is way, way far from ours. That was the second thought I kept having: how can I be so negative about being a researcher at a university consistently ranked among the best in Brazil, located in the state which alone contributes with about a third of the country’ s GDP and has a state science foundation with a budget comparable to the entire federal funding agency? Am I just ungrateful? Am I just being a Xennial?

And then it hit me. The dominating feeling of frustration that echoed in all the posts comes exactly from not being at either tail end of the curve. If we imagine Ecology or any science as a race*, our countries are not be leading, but we are close enough to see the leading racers. We are close enough that our universities, funding agencies, and even our peers expect us to race equally. And when we continuously fail to meet these expectations, we feel frustrated, and inadequate, and see ourselves as imposters.

But this is the thing, we aren’t failing because we’re not good enough, but just because we don’t have the same support system as scientists in the developed world (which was what I was initially writing about). We can’t get grants as large, and when we get we’re not paid on time or get the amount due. When we finally do get paid, then our money buys us less. And even when we can afford it, we get held back by paralyzing bureaucracy. And if we do manage to afford and have it, it will likely become impossible to maintain it because of the rollercoaster. And this is just the funding aspect.

Educational gaps also make a huge difference. We don’t speak the consensus language of science natively, nor are properly educated on it when young. Our entire education system is inferior at all levels, from primary to higher education, so we all need to work extra hard to bring ourselves to the level of the ‘developed world’. And this problem continues even after you “make it’; your supervised students will also be ‘behind’ students in the developed world in reading, writing, and overall learning. Look at the stats given by Falko. That means investing significant more time in mentoring and supervising students, so they can themselves become good scientists and make important contributions.

On top of this, there is the significant administrative overhead, as we receive much less support from our institutions, and most departments are understaffed. We have no grants offices, so each PI must manage every cent spent, keep track of every single receipt, and fill every single line of the insanely complex accounting spreadsheets. Even at the best research universities in Brazil, we have teaching loads similar to American teaching universities, but are expected to do research like we were at a R1 university. Oh, and with no TAs. If you follow Terry McGlynn’s accounts on working at a teaching university that serves underprivileged students, you have the picture of how it is to work at any Brazilian university. Except you still have the high-level research expectations.

So that is the gist of being an ecologist (or any scientist) in a wealthy developing world country. You haven’t really made the jump to the developed world, but you’re expected to act and deliver as if you had, even though about everything else in the system is lacking. And not just by your employers and funders, but mostly by your colleagues in your country and outside it. You will be seen as ‘less productive’ because you don’t have as many papers, even though it costs you many more hours of work and money to produce and document that same piece of knowledge. You will be seen as ‘less competent’ because you publish stuff on your small national journals, even if it is just because you cant afford to pay as often for revisions/translations and/or publication fees, so you can publish your work of the same quality on the consensus “Plan B” open access journals of the develop world.

And the worst of all is knowing that you could do all these, and be producing as much good ecological knowledge, if you had the same support system. Is the feeling of not being able to answer this really cool question because you can’t afford that one extra lab analysis or have the assurance that you’ll actually receive the grant that was awarded to you. Is seeing that question being answered by someone else, while the unfinished manuscript is still lingering on your computer, which you could have finished if only you had received that one piece of equipment in time, or the help of a TA, a research assistant, or a grant manager to free up some of your time.

And this shared frustration gets me both worried and angry. Worried because the pattern I’ve been observing is that to be “internationally recognized”, Brazilian scientists progressively sacrifice their humanity and that of the people around them. With every up-tick on impact factor and H-index comes an increase in questionable grant spending practices, questionable publishing practices, and more treatment of students, assistants and even colleagues as slave robots, fodder to be sacrificed to the publishing and funding gods. All of a sudden, being a ‘recognized scientist’ becomes more important than the science itself, and if that is what my future holds, I’ll pass. I know a lot of my senior, ‘recognized’ colleagues would criticize me, saying I just need to ‘man up’, and do what it takes, but as I’ve been saying more and more lately, if being a ‘leading scientist’ means betraying what I believe in, then I guess I’ll never be one .

And I get angry, because at the end, we’re chasing and being judged by standards that were not decided by us, which are based on working conditions and realities that are not ours, and that are even being increasingly questioned from within. After living in Canada for six years for my PhD, I returned to Brazil following a very unsuccessful foray into the North-American academic job market. At the time, I rationalized this ‘failure’ to myself by saying “Well, at least you wont have to work so hard”. And yet, now I find myself working as hard or harder, while ‘achieving less’ by the conventional standards, and I feel increasingly frustrated and betrayed by the system. But a lot of that is my own fault, by accepting and pursuing standards that should not apply to me.

So maybe we should stop asking the question that in truth is “how much do scientists from developing countries contribute to ecological researchby the standards of the developed world?” and just realize that of course we do contribute as well as any scientist, to the best of our ability, and often in important ways that aren’t recognized by the current standards. And we should be proud of that, and stop measuring ourselves by the standards of others. The best perk of being a developing anything is having the opportunity to learn from the experiences and mistakes of the developed, so we can skip steps and do better without having to copy or repeat them.

I would like to thank Annia Susin Streher for reviewing this first version of my rumbling, and both her and Tadeu Siqueira for long and repeated lunch and beer discussions over these issues.

* This is just a metaphor. We shouldn’t see science as a competition, and the fact that people do so is a large part of the problem.

13 thoughts on “Doing Ecology in Brazil: the feeling of being almost there (and should we really want to be ‘there’)?

    • Thanks, it was my pleasure! The exercise of gathering these thoughts and putting them into a somewhat cohesive post was very enlightening. So much so that I am now convincing some of my close scientist friends to a start a blog of our own :-D.

  1. Thanks for the perspective and insight, Thiago. I can’t help think of broadly- overlapping and wide histograms, where working at any of the many flavors (e.g., BS, MS, PhD) colleges and universities in the US overlap with those in Brazil. And so maybe we can all think about shared experiences and contexts, now that differences have been examined?

    • Yes! There are several multivariate histograms, all very wide, and yet it seems we keep focusing on a small percentile over a single axis, for just a handful of histograms. Not unlike several other aspects of modern society. That is why having spaces such as this, where we can share our varied experiences, is so important. Then (maybe) we can better realize (and internalize) how broad the scientific career can actually be.

  2. Thankyou, Thiago! This is more than enlightening. I have trained students who are going back to work in Africa as scientists, and my respect is enormous for their ambition and persistence, but knowing somewhat their context, I am also nervous for their futures. Apart from training, I think we could do more to ease their integration into research networks, help to publish (revising articles for language) and more. But as you say, have we a system that should be a «model» for science in developing countries? Touting a system that emphasizes H-index and often competition over collaboration, is perhaps not helpful. Your ideas on how to build an alternative system based on your own values would be welcome. We should perhaps listen more, and collaborate with you to construct something different and more useful to your unique context.

    • This is something that causes me some anxiety. There are great initiatives from wealthier countries to support researcher is developing countries. Unfortunately, structural constraints in our developing countries make it hard for us to join these initiatives as equal partners.

      While many wonderful ecologists from Europe and North America will gladly carry more weight in a collaboration in order to support their developing country colleagues, for those of us in developing countries this often feeds our existing insecurities of being ‘dependent’ on outsiders to help us.

      The social and psychological barriers in developing countries can be as important as the economic and political barriers.

      For example, there is a huge funding opportunity for collaborative ecology projects between South Africa and USA, but I am reluctant to apply because I worry that the instability at South African universities could mean that I would be unable to contribute my fair share to the project…

  3. I want to draw your attention to a series of review articles in Journal of Applied Ecology about (applied) ecological research in developing economies. These covered Brazil, China, and India, and were fairly comprehensive. These papers reflect many of the points raised in your blogposts, and may be of broad interest to the readers. Here are the links:
    Brazil – http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1365-2664.2012.02145.x/full
    China – http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1365-2664.2009.01655.x/full
    India – http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/1365-2664.12020/full

  4. This post does a great job of synthesizing a common theme through all the posts in the series.

    What struck me was that most of the authors of the developing-country blog-series had spent some time in their research lives in Europe or North America. This experience of the ‘other side’ has lead to an internal conflict, for me at least.

    On the one hand, we have experienced how ecological research is performed at leading universities and this reminds us of the current shortfall facing developing country ecologists. We are still trailing behind where we would like to be.

    On the other hand, we don’t really want to become like researchers at the European and North American universities either. Our local context won’t allow us to mimic their hyper-competitive research environment (even if we wanted to)

    If I have learnt one thing from reading these posts, it’s that ecologists from developing countries aspire to doing the best work they can by improving their current systems. However, they also realise that they can’t improve their own systems by following the same trajectories of European and North American institutions during the previous century. We will somehow have to find a new development trajectory for ecological science in our countries…

    • “We will somehow have to find a new development trajectory for ecological science in our countries…”

      And fight hard to convince institutions and people in power that we need this new trajectory. For all the merits that we scientists have, it is remarkable how complacent and resistant to change we can be as community.

  5. A really nice contribution Thiago, congrats! As an early career ecologist in Brazil I do share many of concerns raised in all these post on “doing science in developing countries”. Just to add something, things get even harder when we add extra barriers like those related to gender, color, nationality etc. The recent correspondence by Julia Baum and Tara Martin in Nature put me thinking in how harder is doing science in developing countries by the standards of developed country in a machist society? As a tall, thin, white male, I started the “race” far ahead from other less privileged people. We are far from removing those issues from the academia, but it is good to see them been raised and discussed!

    • Thanks! Yes, there are barriers upon barriers, and yet, as I said to Dave Jenkins above, we all keep comparing ourselves after the unfettered scientific “1%”. I once read a really interesting blog post, which sadly I can’t find anymore, where the author criticized modern faculty job ads that always ask for “someone with the potential to be best/leading/topX% in their field”. Well, it might be a bit hard to get *all* scientists to be on the top 10% :-D.

  6. Very, very nice point. Congrats for the post! My conclusion is: we need to fix our academic system in terms of management, goals, and indicators. It means that some of us need to sacrifice our career as researchers and start serving directly as administrators in funding agencies and ministries. And, yes, we need to keep our humanity and pay attention to key issues, such as mental health, gratitude, and kindness, while we fix the system.

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