Earth observation (EO) scientists, like myself, have developed a really bad habit over the decades, ever since satellites first started mapping the Earth. It’s what I call the “Commando approach”. No, I don’t mean we do it without underpants, I mean we do it by stealth. We’ve all done it. It’s quite normal and no-one ever challenges us on it. We observe some physical property of a country from a satellite, or aircraft. Then we parachute (metaphorically) into the country, collect some field data in our area of interest, perhaps with local help, then fly home. Once back in the office, we analyse the satellite data and compare it with our field data, then write up the results as an article for a peer-reviewed journal. Despite the fact that we use the country’s natural resources (as data points), often use local universities to provide logistic support, and we use invaluable local knowledge to conduct the study, we have a habit of not fully collaborating with the local scientists so that they too can justify having their name on the final peer-review publication.
In a recent paper in Environmental Research Letters, some colleagues and I demonstrate the impact this has on the country being studied (Cassells et al, 2011). Our findings surprised even us. A staggering 70% of all published studies conducted in Low Income Countries did not have an author resident in that country. Not publishing with a local scientist doesn’t only happen in the developing world, it happens everywhere – I’ve published work on forests in Sweden, but without a Swedish co-author, for instance – but the impact on the Low Income countries is more significant. Scientists everywhere have the pressure of having to publish peer reviewed articles, and scientist in the Global South are no different, but in the North, we have plenty of opportunity for funding and collaboration. It is significantly harder for scientists in the Global South to access those same opportunities.Out intention in this article isn’t to pillory the community. We don’t believe this is something we do on purpose, rather it’s just a habit that has formed. But it is therefore a habit we can change. The world is different from the early days of remote sensing. There is now a strong international emphasis on making sure that all countries have the capacity to use satellite data for in-country applications. This is very clear in the context of avoided deforestation, where the model for REDD (Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation) is that individual nations will have responsibility to monitor their own forests. A large part of the current investment in making REDD work is about boosting the indigenous capacity to use satellite measurements of forests.
So here is what we recommend:
1) Whenever possible, collaborate with local scientists from the beginning (at the proposal submission stage is best).
2) Make sure you properly collaborate, rather than just using the local support for logistics.
3) Have the local collaborators contribute to the final publications so that they can be co-authors.
We believe that taking this approach will ultimately prove to be the most effective way to enhance the international capacity to exploit satellite data. Learning through collaboration is a much more effective way to learn than sitting through hours of powerpoint-based training.
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 We use the World Bank differentiation of Low, Low-middle, High-middle and High Income countries, although we also loosely refer to “developing” countries or “Global South”, although technically you might argue that they are all slightly different.