Beyond the Scientific Bubble: The Inequity Dilemma in Field Research

As animal behaviorists, we often conduct fieldwork in very different regions of the world. We might find ourselves carrying out studies in the cold Arctic tundra, lush tropical forests of Madagascar, or even in a parking lot in the California Central Valley. Most biologists will tell you their motivations stem from a need to understand the natural world, a desire to help conserve biodiversity, or even just an innate connection to the wilderness. We think of our work as transcending geographic and political boundaries. If migrating whales swim hundreds of kilometers from feeding grounds in the Arctic to breed in the warm waters of Baja California, who can declare ownership over the vectors and trajectories that characterize those movements? Most people would agree that no one entity or institute should have the authority to lay claim to data. In fact, there is a change in cultural attitudes in the scientific community, with more investigators supporting open-access, digitally-curated data about natural phenomena [1], [2], [3], [4]. However, we’re not here to contest or argue the value of free data access; enumerating the obvious benefits and potential concerns would require a whole other conversation and this is by no means a novel topic within the research community [5], [6]. Instead, we’d like to open the conversation about a less discussed, but perhaps more important issue that we often ignore when we conduct field research in the natural sciences; specifically, the inequity dilemma in scientific research and de-colonizing animal behavior fieldwork.

Migration routes of three western gray whales from Sakhalin Island, Russia to Baja California, Mexico [Source]. Animals often cross political and geographic boundaries. But these human boundaries present real limits to unhindered global movement of researchers.

While anyone should be able to study topics such as whale migration patterns or primate social behaviors, we must acknowledge that research conducted in some contexts is often faintly stained with echoes of colonial histories. From personal experience, there is a notable lack of diversity in a room of researchers at many scientific conferences, university departments, and ecological field stations. This unfortunately and undeniably sets up a power dynamic between those peoples who are “transient” and those who are “resident” at field sites. This terminology is used in the loosest sense, but here, “transient” refers to a researcher temporarily conducting work in a field site, who does not directly experience the trials and minutiae that a local or resident from that same region might. This is not to devalue the dedication of the transient; often researchers are committed, almost to a fault, to their study system, regardless of duration of the study. Stories abound of the crazed entomologist spending decades in the brush in search of elusive caterpillars or the passionate archaeologists immersing themselves in a community to catalogue human histories. This dedication to the pursuit of knowledge is commendable, particularly as the work is often done without regard for glory, acknowledgement, or frankly, money.

Decolonizing Methodologies by Dr. Linda Tuhiwai Smith is a wonderful text that examines the relationship between “Western” research and indigenous peoples. Anthropologists have been forerunners in the conversation about decolonizing research in the context of resident peoples [Source].

Because of this, it can be easy to forget that we do not operate in scientific bubbles. When we step back, we must ask ourselves: how much of our work as biologists leaves room for those who live in or adjacent to natural spaces? We could wax poetic about how the biological realm is tied together by a web of natural processes strung pendulously between landmasses and bodies of water. It is true that many of these claims have a real, tangible foundation: deforestation in the tropics and melting polar ice caps are known to have long-lasting and permanent impacts on the global carbon and water balance. Yet the researchers studying these processes—those diligent note-takers jotting down numbers about the rate of receding ice margins, those data-crunchers analyzing geospatial data on tropical forest loss, those field biologists studying animal responses to anthropogenic change—are usually not the first to have their way of life directly impacted by this change. Researchers studying human-wildlife conflict, human behavioral ecology, archaeology, bio-ethnography, and political ecology have been forerunners of the discussion of inequity issues for over a few decades [7], [8], [9], but these attitudes are slow to permeate into other subfields of evolution and ecology.

Field biologists are often diligent note-takers and dedicated to our work, but it is easy for us to get lost in our research bubbles and forget about the broader impacts of conducting fieldwork in “borrowed” nations. Field illustrations of caracal from renowned zoologist Jonathan Kingdon [Source].

Unfortunately, there are obvious reasons for this unbalanced representation within scientific circles. Attendance at scientific conferences underlines this dramatic skew: basic science is frequently conducted in nations with histories of colonization. The “borrowed” nations, now on the slow recovery from natural resource exploitation, just do not have the economic stability necessary to indulge in basic scientific inquiry. Even within North America, native nation sovereignty and scientific research is a contentious affair. Native American tribes are stewards to less than 4% of land area in the United States [10]. Researchers who conduct fieldwork on wildlife are often not associated with, nor do they have long-term ties to, the natural spaces in which they are transient visitors. This is true both within and outside of the United States [11]. We could attribute this inequity to the large variance in national and global education standards. Students in “borrowed” nations are often at an inherent disadvantage: education systems are not on par with those to which a transient researcher may have had the good fortune to experience. When a transient researcher—such as a graduate or post-doctoral student—finishes their studies, resident researchers may not have access to the same infrastructure to continue research independently. More importantly, residents are unable to cross the boundaries through which transients readily transit. In other words, a graduate student in the United States may travel from California to Central Africa to Northern Europe to conduct their dissertation research, but a graduate student in Gabon has far fewer opportunities to cross as many geographic and ecological boundaries. The Erasmus Mundus Programme in Europe and the Fullbright U.S. Student Program have gone some way to correcting this imbalance. Yet we have a long way to go.

Members of the Haida tribe perform fish surveys on streams at Keat's Inlet on Prince of Wales Island. Streams that provide proof as good salmon habitat can be protected at the highest level by the state of Alaska.
Members of the Haida tribe in Canada are directly involved in fish surveys and research that assesses good habitat for salmon in the region. [Photo credit: Erika Nortemann/TNC, Source]. Native nation stewardship is a first step towards increasing scientific potential by resident researchers.

It may seem that access to equitable education systems is a distant reality. In the face of this inequality, what can we do as researchers? Many field biologists engage with local communities and employ local staff. Some even set up community-driven conservation, education, and management programs [12], [13], [14], [15], [16]. Resident university students are employed as research assistants and trained in relevant biological techniques. But of course, as critical thinkers, we must also question whether these endeavors are enough. More importantly, are our actions indicative of a temporary, short-term change? Or are we leaving behind a lasting infrastructure that removes the dichotomy between the transient and the resident? Shifting our collective scientific mindset requires extensive effort and awareness, and infrastructures take time to build. This is unlikely to be a solution that will manifest itself in the near future. Historical injustices cannot be fixed overnight by capacity-building strategic plans or detailed 10-year education outreach goals.

Rather than let this opinion piece become a platform for pontification, we’d like to propose a few attainable goals. These are specifically targeted at graduate students who are at the helm of the tidal change in scientific attitudes. These goals are enumerated along with reasons for their importance and ways to achieve them:

+ Increase the demand for grants that permit the employment of resident researchers +

Why?Many research grants do not consider staff or assistant stipends as “necessary” to the scientific process. For instance, collection vials, GPS devices, or camera traps are seen as essential to project success. We should, however, place equal importance on enabling a resident researcher to conduct research independent of a transient’s work in that region.

How?Increase the demand for grants that explicitly fund salaries for collaborative field teams. Often, graduate students will incorporate these costs into a grant under the guise of personal or living expenses, but they deserve a category of their own within the grant application. We need to ask granting agencies to increase opportunities to fund this cross-boundary collaboration.

+ Increased opportunities for research and education exchange +

Why?This allows for increased communication and fostering of ideas amongst a global community of researchers. The divide between the resident and transient researcher is so stark and exchange programs so few and far between that long-term research programs are largely managed by transients.

How?Increase the transparency and support available to students who may not have heard about education exchange programs. Increase the demand at your local university for a program that allows students from around the world to attend classes and conduct research with faculty members who have access to decently-equipped labs. For example, if you are a graduate student conducting fieldwork in Indonesia for 6 months, there should be a way for a resident Indonesian student to explore their own research interests at your local university.

+ Dues paid for “raw data extraction” [tied to granting requests above…] +

Why?Data is a precious resource. It should be treated as such. If we are extracting research materials from a site, we should be paying appropriate fare for this economic benefit. Field sites and national parks/reserves are costly to manage.

How?Some field sites may require that transients pay fees to conduct their research. However, we are more than content to avoid (and unlikely to initiate) conversations about monetary compensation at sites that either do not have associated fees or charge very little for access. Of course, this is complicated by factors such as grant availability, local politics, and many other issues. However, just by being aware of these potential costs, we can start a conversation amongst the younger generation of scientists that are conducting field research.

+ Informing local communities and resident researchers about your results +

Why?Often collaboration with local communities ends with a student’s field season, and data analysis takes time. The pressure to publish in journals in a timely fashion overshadows the need to communicate these results with local communities who are directly affected by them. By the time a dissertation or article is published, graduate students have understandably moved on to their next project or endeavor.

How?—Ensure that data and results are shared with local collaborators who can disseminate this information to the broader community. Transient researchers should consider giving preliminary presentations before leaving their field sites. If the field site is part of an ongoing research project, ensure that future transients to the site follow-up on previous studies. Check out the Indigenous Guardians Toolkit for a great working model that enables information sharing [17].


We are only beginning the long journey toward changing the way we approach our interactions with the broader community, but our first step will be a major one: increasing our collective awareness about how, where, and with whom we conduct our science.

[By: Neetha Iyer, with contributions from Meredith Lutz, Alexandra McInturf & Allison Lau]


  1. Dryad Digital Repository: open-access data on evolutionary biology and ecology. URL:
  2. Movebank: free, online database of animal tracking data hosted by Max Planck Institute for Ornithology. URL:
  3. European Bioinformatics Institute (EMBL-EBI): open-access database on bioinformatics and molecular data resources. URL:
  4. Extensive list of data repositories curated by Nature:
  5. Kranstauber, B., Cameron, A., Weinzerl, R., Fountain, T., Tilak, S., Wikelski, M., & Kays, R. (2011). The Movebank data model for animal tracking. Environmental Modelling & Software26(6), 834-835.
  6. Yozwiak, N. L., Schaffner, S. F., & Sabeti, P. C. (2015). Data sharing: Make outbreak research open access. Nature News518(7540), 477.
  7. Caro, T. (Ed.). (1998). Behavioral ecology and conservation biology. Oxford University Press
  8. Lydon, J., & Rizvi, U. Z. (Eds.). (2016). Handbook of postcolonial archaeology. Routledge.
  9. Smith, L. T. (2013). Decolonizing methodologies: Research and indigenous peoples. Zed Books Ltd.
  10. Kimmerer, R. W. (2002). Weaving traditional ecological knowledge into biological education: a call to action. AIBS Bulletin52(5), 432-438.
  11. Adams, W. M., & Mulligan, M. (Eds.). (2003). Decolonizing nature: strategies for conservation in a post-colonial era. Earthscan.
  12. Landscape and Conservation Mentors Organization (LCMO): Non-profit NGO promoting grassroots conservation management in Tanzania. URL:
  13. Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International (DFGFI): Research and conservation NGO promoting field-based studies on gorillas and wildlife in DRC and Rwanda. URL:
  14. Groupe d’étude et de recherche sur les primates de Madagascar (GERP): Non-profit organization that conducts research and conservation projects across Madagascar. URL:
  15. Cocha Cashu Biological Station: Research station based in Manu National Park for research and conservation education about Peruvian rainforest. URL:
  16. The Leuser Watch: Program run by the Rainforest Action Network (RAN) to monitor threats to the critically-endangered Leusuer Ecosystem in Indonesia. URL:
  17. Indigenous Guardians Toolkit: Online toolkit that supports data dissemination amongst indigenous communities in Canada. URL:

Image sources:

  1. Mate, B. R., Ilyashenko, V. Y., Bradford, A. L., Vertyankin, V. V., Tsidulko, G. A., Rozhnov, V. V., & Irvine, L. M. (2015). Critically endangered western gray whales migrate to the eastern North Pacific. Biology letters11(4), 20150071.
  2. Review of Decolonizing Methodologies by Zed Books:
  3. Field Notes on Science & Nature review in Wired Magazine:
  4. How Do We Share Indigenous Stewardship Knowledge?  Written by Emerald Edge for the Nature Conservancy:
  5. Main featured image [Source]

One Comment Add yours

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s