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Scientific imperialism

Gerardo Budowski

Gerardo Budowski, a forester, is the Director-General of the international Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN).

Scientists from developed countries descend upon developing countries to collect, "protect" or capture and take home flora, fauna and professional prestige. They often succeed only in making problems for themselves and their local scientific colleagues. What ought to be recognized is that every country has the right to utilize and present to the world its own scientific resources.

The word "imperialism" has a subjective connotation and in general is used to describe the exploitation of one group by another. Scientific imperialism originates from the fact that more often than not a country that possesses certain resources, valuable for scientific reasons, does not have the means to use or conserve them properly, and receives little benefit from their exploitation by others.

Scientific imperialism is a widespread phenomenon today and takes many different forms. Because it is "carried out in the name of science" it may seem to be justified automatically, and any protest may be stifled by strong criticism.

A typical instance of scientific imperialism may be as follows: a very interesting natural forest area for collecting and field observation is found in a developing tropical country which has little comprehension of "basic" science. It is concentrating all its efforts on trying to solve its staggering food, health and communication problems. Shifting cultivation on marginal land is gradually encroaching on and destroying the natural forest area. Scientists from developed countries move in and collect in the name of science, with the conviction that if they do not collect as quickly as possible nothing may remain. The resentment of local scientists and other officials from the developing country gradually builds up against the "foreigners".

Access denied

Justified or not, it must be recognized as a natural reaction. Eventually, foreign scientists may be denied access and permission to go on collecting. But local scientists may not be able to protect the disappearing scientific material. Ultimately, the whole area may be lost, either through a continuation of the piecemeal encroachment or through road-building leading to forest clearing. A good part of it may later revert to useless secondary scrub. Quite often an aggressive invasive grass takes over, and a drab landscape remains with very little value for collecting or scientific observation.

A different attitude by the visiting scientists could have prevented this trend; in fact, a carefully planned approach could have led to a programme of assistance in developing the resource to the ultimate benefit both of the country concerned and of the foreign scientists.

The crudest form of imperialism is often practiced by the explorer-observer-collector from a developed country who discovers a new area which has not been intensively investigated by scientists. He collects specimens which he sends to well-endowed foreign museums and other institutions, where they are studied, mounted, identified, described and illustrated for scientific and other purposes. Historically this is the oldest and best documented approach, and the reputation of many scientists and their institutions, indeed the advancement of science, can be traced to it. Nothing appears to be wrong with this traditional approach, but in today's world it is likely to arouse much resentment which could be avoided. Indeed, with very little additional effort much more could be achieved without embittering the scientists of the developing country. It is easy to appreciate how they might be upset, particularly if they are not participating. Even if no local scientists exist, future generations may feel resentment and influence policies accordingly.

Of course, collecting specimens and sending them to the best places for identification and mounting are necessary and desirable; but action should not stop there. There should always be some intent to help the host country to build up its own facilities, encourage its own museums and curators or equivalents, and improve its own library service. It has to be admitted that herbaria and other collections are often kept in very unsatisfactory conditions, and that libraries are poorly serviced. Nevertheless, such help whenever and wherever offered has proved to be worthwhile in every respect.

Field expeditions should always be organized so that local scientists can actively participate. Ultimately such a policy will greatly benefit science. Future collectors coming from foreign countries are more likely to find ready access to good local collections and libraries, and they will encounter local experts willing to make their work easier, more profitable as far as results are concerned, and finally more economical.


Strong reactions

However, collection alone, without the strengthening of local facilities, will sooner or later produce a strong reaction among indigenous scientists who are often frustrated because of lack of facilities, lack of recognition at home and abroad and, more than anything else, lack of opportunity. They may even be able to force an embargo on "foreign" collecting, as has already happened in some countries. Collecting without considering the needs of the country is a short-term approach for relatively narrow benefits which may dry up the resource.

Scientists working in another country, with a background and training derived from a different environment, have a tendency to "discover" some of the scientific facts of the new country and present them as a great novelty to fellow scientists of their own culture, and sometimes even to the general public. The novelty of their discovery may, of course, be enhanced by excellent photographs and some interesting anecdotes or details. For the type of audience for which the publication is intended-people who have a background of training and culture similar to that of the author - the discovery may be interesting, or even sensational. But in the country where the field research was carried out, the scientific community and the general public, with a different viewpoint and knowledge, may feel that the presentation is twisted. They may resent the fact that the subjective presentation does not correspond to the scientific evidence.

Sometimes no credit is given to local authors of writings on the same subject which may have appeared in lesser known publications, or in local newspapers. Foreign publications dealing with a developing country often receive wide publicity in that country and may be translated and reproduced in the local press. Various undesirable reactions are generated, and there may even be a tendency by scientists or science writers in the country to imitate the foreign interpretation. They can become very good at it but gradually may become aliens within their own culture. Whatever the outcome, the result is again detrimental to the advancement of science.

There are two remedies, depending on the type of publication. If it is obviously not intended to become a scientific reference and is directed to a particular alien audience, this should be clearly noted in the introduction. If, however, it is a scientific publication a great deal of care should be taken to present as objective a picture as possible. Admittedly this is not easy unless consultations with local scientists take place and the utmost tact is used. The involvement of local scientists or scientific writers, for instance as co-authors, may be very desirable. Such a potential co-author may be able to translate the paper and adapt it to his audience, thus multiplying the impact.



The broad, superficial generalizations by expatriate scientists who try to fit a country or region into a certain category, from which it later derives a label, is another case of scientific imperialism. Far too many statements and publications are based on short observations and this has given rise to sweeping generalizations which often condemn or glorify the country or region beyond reality. The stereotyped general picture which emerges may take a long time to throw off, even after more comprehensive and detailed studies are made. A classical example is the description: ", steaming, almost unbearable environment," attached to many tropical countries, a theme with unfortunately large variations. How the people living in the area adapt, that there are nearby mountains that are cooler, or simply that the capital's climate is not the whole country's climate, are facts that are completely overlooked. Again, a specific country has been described as having by far the richest flora and fauna of a whole region, when what has happened is that this particular country has attracted the earliest or largest number of botanists or zoologists. The consequence is that successive scientists schedule their visits there; their efforts become progressively less rewarding, while they disregard neighbouring countries that may have an equally rich flora or fauna, and badly need direct or aided scientific research.

The remedy, as has already been implied, is to adopt a much more careful and factual attitude when describing observations and collections, and to promote all possible action that may lead to a build-up of local facilities.

Foreign scientists should support local institutions and scientists so as to preserve flora and fauna in the countries of origin ... not to do so is to go against their own interests

Local assistants

Many scientists enter a foreign country with letters of introduction, or their impending arrival may be announced by others. Their reputations have been well established through publications or other endeavours; consequently they are often grant-aided. Moreover, they frequently request, and are granted, local assistants, usually bright young people who are taken away from the day-to-day functions which have been entrusted to them. Such assistants will often be very keen to leave their routine jobs and accompany the distinguished visiting scientists for what is likely to be a most interesting assignment. Their assistance and knowledge of the language and customs are generally very valuable to the visitor. Sometimes there is a rewarding follow-up for the assistant, such as improvement of his status, the inheritance of materials, such as books or instruments, or even a fellowship. More often, however, it leads to nothing of the sort. Although the help of the assistant is sometimes acknowledged in a publication, such mention is frequently buried in a list containing many names, some of them those of bureaucratic functionaries who had little or no involvement with the study. At worst, the assistant is completely ignored. This is very painful for him, since he has often been essential to the success of the mission, for instance by being able to identify the common names of plants and animals, by advice on the usages and customs of the people in the area, and by providing otherwise inaccessible information.

The obvious remedy is to build up the status, knowledge, and ability of such assistants for future constructive work so that they have the feeling that their short-term association has been of benefit both to themselves and to their country.

Relative luxury

As we have briefly mentioned, visiting scientists often arrive on missions with grants or full financial assistance for the work with which they are entrusted. Sometimes they bring graduate student assistants with them, or even their wives. Properly funded and staffed, they are a striking example of the careful preparation made by the country or organization that sends them. But from the point of view of the receiving country, this may be regarded as extreme luxury, particularly by the local scientists who are almost always short of status, transport facilities, assistants, equipment, libraries and financial rewards. The result is widespread resentment, often compounded by ignorance of the language and customs of the visiting scientist and his entourage.


The remedy here is to avoid bringing an assistant, to use local facilities as much as possible and pay for them, not only in money but also in instruments, books and other items which can be used for the improvement of the prestige and facilities of local scientists. There are always some local scientists; it may take some time to locate them but it will be time well spent. Ostentation of any kind should, of course, be avoided.

Overpaying for local services is a common peccadillo which often disrupts traditional patterns and customs and rarely creates a feeling of long-lasting gratitude. Paying too much for the supply of specimens, excessive tipping and paying for small favours considered traditional and free by local populations are all particularly damaging. There is simply no reasonable excuse for overpaying. It creates animosity and a damaging feeling of competition and resentment among visiting fellow scientists who do not overpay; even worse, it antagonizes local scientists, who not only cannot afford to imitate their foreign colleagues but often think that this is immoral and corrupt. The simple remedy here is to find out what is the just price or the right attitude when it comes to making a choice.

Many countries are clearly not well organized for scientific research when compared with American or European standards. This is particularly true when it comes to transportation. Vehicles used by local field personnel are almost always in short supply. When repairs are needed it may take a long time to obtain parts and get them fitted. Moreover, they often represent a status symbol to local users. Visiting scientists should be particularly circumspect in accepting courteous and matter-of-fact offers to help them with a vehicle. The least they should do is cause the least possible inconvenience. Sometimes it may be appropriate to offer compensation, in the form of payment or gifts.

The visitor has an important advantage, not having taken side in local rivalries, he is considered neutral, or a potential ally to all...he should retain thin advantage

"Within a few days"

Europeans and North Americans are not usually accustomed to the subtle ways that can be employed to say "no" when they request free transport; for instance, a vague promise to find a vehicle "within a few days." Whenever possible it pays to hire local facilities, expensive as they may be, rather than request transport from government or local institutions. Much could be said about the misunderstandings and abuses that have occurred in this connexion which constitute an endless source of friction.

It is quite common for different scientific expeditions with similar or related objectives, such as collecting specimens or studying natural ecosystems, to visit a developing country at more or less the same time. While everybody agrees in principle that much could be gained by coordinating efforts and joining forces, this is seldom done.

Sooner or later animosity develops. Not only is there an unavoidable duplication of effort and expenditure, but among the local inhabitants - in particular the scientific community - it can cause misunderstanding and mistrust. Local administrators often learn how to play one group against another. Much more could be said about this unfortunate habit. Although it would appear elementary to investigate what others are doing in the field and how the country actually reacts to their aims, this is seldom done.

In some countries there is an office which handles scientific requests. Sometimes it covers a particular area of the country. For instance, in Ecuador the Galapagos Islands has the Charles Darwin Foundation as a coordination bureau. Very often, however, such a clearinghouse does not exist, and it is necessary to find other sources of information.

Every scientific expedition, or single scientist, should do everything possible to inquire about other groups and establish contacts before actually arriving in the area under study. A proper liaison is obviously and urgently called for, and again everything should be done to dispel mutual ignorance or mistrust.

Alien standards

Visiting scientists bring with them their methods and technologies and, more often than not, are imitated locally, consciously or otherwise. Many feel they have the right to demand of their paid or unpaid local assistants that they work according to their own alien standards. This can give rise to a great deal of confusion. For instance, some Central American countries have been changing from metric measurements regarding forest inventories to British system measurements because of North American influence, only to come back partially to metric measurements because of later FAO influence. Other examples of annoying changes that can be traced to foreign influence involve filing systems in libraries and testing methods for building materials.


Certain technologies will be readily imitated, often with disastrous effects. Efficient hunting traps are now so widespread in certain tropical countries that they have led to the practical eradication of some species. The same applies to more efficient guns and other killing devices. Collectors of small tropical fish in the Amazon area have introduced special fishing techniques; a multi-million dollar trade has developed benefiting the importing countries-which is leading to the depletion and perhaps the extermination of certain species and, finally, of the trade itself. While it may be argued that the introduction of new technologies can lead to additional income for the local people, scientists have the duty to look to the long-term interests and, if their new technologies fall on cultures that cannot use them without destroying the very resources on which such trade is based, they should take the utmost precautions in providing what, at the present time, are extremely dangerous tools.

At a proper time it may be quite appropriate to introduce these technologies. That time is when the populations that benefit from such technologies are fully prepared to use them wisely on a truly permanent basis for the right kind of development, one that does not jeopardize the possibilities of keeping the choice of options open for future generations. Since many scientists from developed countries are now "conservation-oriented" they should be cautious of the influence they exert on other cultures, which have not yet been so exposed to shrinking resources, pollution and erosion. This demands extreme care in the introduction of new technologies.

The obvious remedy is to take a long-term approach that will ultimately benefit the country itself and therefore its scientific progress. As a general rule, disruption of local customs should always be very carefully avoided.


Who to see

Upon arrival in a developing country scientists often find it necessary to gain the support or approval of key local people. Letters of recommendation may not be directed to the right people, since changes in the administration in developing countries are usually frequent.

Efforts to make useful contacts are legitimate and quite appropriate as long as the contacts are the right ones. Support may be offered by what appear to be heaven-sent emissaries. But how does one know with whom to become connected? To whom to present one's letters?

Rivalries, intrigues, organizational clashes regarding competence in certain fields exist in every country, whether developing or developed. Sometimes these land mines are out in the open and easy to recognize but still difficult to avoid treading on, and sometimes they are invisible to the foreigner, buried under indigenous subtleties. Everything must be done to avoid being involved in local and often very subtle issues, particularly those connected with clashes of personalities. Local attitudes toward the government or the military authorities, for instance, may be very different from those in the scientists' own countries. Laws and regulations often have different ways of being obeyed. It is obviously impossible to learn all about complicated balances of power and other aspects of local politics, but certain rules are worth while following.

Above all caution is essential. Personal interviews with different key people are always very rewarding, however time-consuming they may be. It does not pay to visit only one official and ignore others. These calls are more than courtesy or duty calls. Other pitfalls need to be avoided. It is usually a mistake to take as a main adviser a local scientist who happens to be well known for his strong opposition to the government, however good he may be as a scientist. A neutral one would be much more indicated for a foreign visitor, while friendly contacts should be maintained with others.

The newly arrived scientist has one important advantage. He has not yet taken sides and therefore is considered neutral - or a potential ally - and will be well received everywhere. He should by all means maintain this vantage point.

Visiting scientists sometimes find themselves making public or official statements before they are aware of the implications of their declarations. To make a press statement on the potential of the untapped resources of the country without knowing all the relevant factors, which may include complicated social, political, cultural and economic considerations, is poor judgement. But to do so when local scientists have been trying to say the same things without reaching the ear of the relevant minister, and without any local publicity or recognition, will compound the mistake and make instant enemies out of potential allies.

Foreign scientists should understand that they themselves are news, or at least novelties. They often enjoy special courtesies and are granted immediate audience by ministers or presidents, although local scientists are rarely listened to, or must go through a painful and wasteful period before they get the attention of higher authorities or obtain good press coverage. No press interview, no visit to a minister, should be arranged before consulting with local scientists. A request for advice as to subjects to be brought to the attention of the minister, the press, or a television or radio audience wild usually be very gratefully acknowledged.

Scientific imperialism is, at present, on the increase. It is argued that collecting must be carried out as rapidly and as massively as possible in order to preserve, at least in museums and zoos, what once constituted a rich heritage of plants and animals. However, while natural resources of great scientific importance are being rapidly diminished by overpopulation and the destruction of large tracts of natural areas, collecting massive quantities of scientific material is by no means the only or most desirable way of dealing with the problem.

Foreign scientists have a duty to promote the creation of local structures and the recruitment of local personnel to deal effectively with local resources. Above all, appropriate natural areas should receive, as soon as possible, the status of protected scientific areas, or be set aside as national parks or equivalent reserves.

The proper allocation of financial and other support for the benefit of local "progressive conservationists" is probably the most productive procedure to follow for visiting scientists and the organizations which sponsor them. If such conservationists do not yet exist in a particular country, they should be encouraged as a top priority.


All the glory

It should not be forgotten that the cry against scientific imperialism usually comes from young, vociferous and often ambitious scientists who see foreigners getting all the glory. Whether or not it is justified it must be recognized, and local scientists must be given a fair opportunity to achieve recognition. In the developing countries the gap between the "haves" and the "have nots" needs to be bridged as much in science as in other aspects of life. The recognition that every country has the right to utilize its own scientific resources, and proudly present them for the benefit of the rest of the world, should be in the mind of every scientist who goes to another country. This is not to say that visiting scientists should desist from their original mission or expedition. They are needed, sometimes very badly, but they should understand that their involvement in scientific inquiry will influence local people and structures to a much greater extent than is usually anticipated. They should be prepared to meet this challenge intelligently and tactfully, and arrange to carry out their trip accordingly.

In the meantime, a code of ethics, adapted to specific conditions, needs to be adopted by visiting scientists. A good move in this direction - guidelines for biological field work - was published in Science in 1970 (Vol. 169).

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