Today’s post is a fascinating perspective on the knowing-doing gap from Anne Toomey.
Anne also has her own blog: Science and the Community – Adventures in the Bolivian Amazon.
In a recent issue of Journal of Applied Ecology, editor Philip Hulme wrote a piece on the increasingly discussed knowing-doing gap, in which there is a “clear mismatch between ecological knowledge generated by researchers and that applied by practitioners”. He makes note of four kinds of ‘knowing’ needed in order to bridge the gap – ‘know-who’, ‘know-what’, ‘know-how’ and ‘know-when’. While the latter three of these areas have been much discussed in the conservation literature on evidence-based conservation, use-inspired research and knowledge-exchange, the issue of who is found at the gap between knowing and doing has so far been little explored. Generally discussions on scientific impact refer to would-be ‘users’ of research information, emphasizing the importance of categorizing between their different ‘types’, and how to communicate scientific information accordingly. Rarely mentioned in these literatures is how different stakeholders see their own relationship to science and research, especially from the perspective of local people living on the lands where scientists carry out fieldwork. One reason that these perspectives are important is because in some countries, especially in tropical regions with both high biological and cultural diversity, natural resource management is more often determined by rural peoples than by those who develop official management policies in urban-based offices.
During the past three years I have been studying how local people perceive scientific research together with a small team of Bolivian researchers in the Madidi National Park and surrounding region, one of the most biodiverse places on the planet, and overlapped by indigenous territories and farming communities. The existence of such cultural diversity means that local people are important stakeholders in the management of the region. However, our research has shown that despite the prevalence of scientific research carried out in Madidi, few scientists have attempted to communicate the results and local relevance of their work with local people in more than a perfunctory way (i.e. simply handing over a technical report to a village leader). Even fewer have tried to understand how they and their work are perceived by people who have had little western science education, some of whom are unable to read or write.
The study, which involved both a quantitative review of research done over the last decade in Madidi National Park, as well as qualitative methods such as interviews, focus groups and participant observation, found a wide range of misunderstanding among local people about who scientists are and what scientific research is for. In one indigenous community that has been host to dozens of research projects over the last twenty years, it was interesting to learn that the inhabitants categorized different ‘types’ of researchers in different ways. While scientists were those who ‘know about the sky’ (the weather or space), and had never visited their community, biologists were often coming to do things with plants and animals –the community members weren’t always able to say precisely what. One young man said later that “biologists were always copying each other – they never do anything new,” and a park guard admitted that most local people tended to view biologists as “tourists with binoculars”.
With regards to local perceptions about the purpose and significance of research, the vast majority of those questioned were of the belief that “research is only for the researcher.” This perception makes sense in light of the very low levels of local dissemination of research results – our study found that even when scientists came back year after year to the same place, only rarely did they hand over results to local people. Even in cases where research was shared, it tended to only be presented to those with higher levels of power in the community (leaders, and almost always men). Community members with lower status (older, illiterate inhabitants, or women) were included far less in such conversations. This has led to an increasing gap between the types of knowledge held within a given community; with higher-powered members becoming more able to negotiate technical information and lower-powered members maintaining traditional beliefs, which may become less valued as they lose status within their own society.
Thus, for scientists wishing to bridge the knowing-doing gap, the situation becomes somewhat more complex. Communication is key, but researchers also need to open their eyes to the sociocultural dynamics in the communities where they work, as well as the local histories of those places. What experiences have people had with scientists, or other types of outsiders, in the past, and how will that impact their perceptions of the work being done? Who holds power, and what knowledge are they using to make decisions? Who might benefit from a given research project, and who might be marginalized further?
Biologists and ecologists may not have the skills or training to deal with these situations, especially if they come from western cultures with very different cultural norms from the places where they carry out their fieldwork. Thus, potential solutions point to multi-disciplinary research teams – bringing on board social scientists able to access and understand different epistemologies and worldviews – as well as working closely with local researchers and community members and ensuring that they receive due recognition for their efforts. In the eyes of many indigenous peoples, scientific research has traditionally been an extractivist activity in which more is often taken away than given back. If this is to change, not only the practice of research must change, but the attitudes of scientists themselves.
For more information on this work, please see:
3 thoughts on “Are biologists just “tourists with binoculars”? Exploring the knowing-doing gap in tropical countries”
Very interesting and something (scientific imperialism) I have been meaning to write about for a while – was there a difference in behaviour between indigenous scientists and foreign scientists or was the research confined entirely to foreign scientists?
Thanks for your interesting question. I’m not sure what you mean by ‘indigenous scientists’, but this research did involve both Bolivian and foreign scientists in workshops and interviews. One trend in the data shows that Bolivian researchers seemed to be more open to different forms of knowledge (such as held by lowland indigenous communities), and additionally were more likely to disseminate their research to local stakeholders, as compared to their foreign counterparts. I’m writing up this data at the moment, so hopefully publications on this work will not be too long in coming!
thanks – yes I mean Bolivian scientists as opposed to those from other countries –