Academic colonialism puts bias into reefs says researchers

Coral reefs occupy less than 0.2% of the seabed while providing habitat for at least 25% of all known marine species. However, they are also in global decline due to climate change, which has sparked extensive research into the area of coral health.

But scientists taking a bird’s eye view of the research have revealed biases in how coral health research is conducted.

A paper, published in the Journal of Ecological Solutions and Evidence, found that 79% of review papers on coral health are published from within the United States and Australia, while authors from countries with large coral reef systems, such as The Maldives, Papua New Guinea and Indonesia, are underrepresented.

This type of bias is referred to as “academic colonialism.”  

“Academic colonialism is the phenomenon where research is biased to come largely from institutions in the Global North, but was conducted in other countries,” Samantha Burke, PhD candidate and lead author on the study from the University of New South Wales, told Cosmos.

The Global North refers to the relative power and wealth of countries in distinct parts of the world, encompassing rich and powerful regions such as North America, Europe, and Australia.

“For example, an American researcher travels to Indonesia to conduct research, does not include local researchers, and returns to America to write and publish the research in their American institution’s name,” explains Burke.

The paper synthesised 335 review articles on coral health and provides data on topic areas that are well-covered, areas that need further research, and evidence-backed directions for where coral health research can be improved as a whole.

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Key areas of research, including bioerosion of corals – the removal of coral material by other living reef organisms – and the coral microbiome, were found to be under-investigated.

“Bio-erosion and the coral microbiome – the bacteria that lives in its tissues – are not fully understood yet. These two facets, particularly the coral microbiome, could drastically change our understanding of how coral health is affected by climate change and human activities,” says Burke.

“So, for example, as we had seen that most of the researchers are coming from America, it might explain why we have so much research on coral bleaching, because there have been lots of coral bleaching events that have been well documented in the Caribbean and Hawaii, compared to events that are happening in other coral reefs, for example, disease outbreaks in the Coral Sea, right off the coast of Indonesia.”

Burke adds that local researchers provide a wealth of knowledge and are intimately familiar with the community’s relationship with coral reefs.

“We don’t condone this exclusion of local experts from research that impacts them not only because it’s a disservice to the research not to include someone with key knowledge, but also because this exclusion continues to perpetuate a cycle of where grant money goes to fund research,” she says.

“If grant money could also be administered to researchers from the countries where research is conducted, then we would expect to see an increase in research connecting with the public and a more balanced distribution of which countries contribute to top research in marine science.”

Improving the inclusivity of the field may occur by raising awareness amongst coral health researchers of this phenomenon, so that they can change the way they conduct research in the future.

“One way to address these biases is to include more local knowledge in research. We’ve seen here in Australia that being aware of local and Indigenous knowledge is key for conducting quality and respectful marine research that will impact the community,” says Burke.

“While we can’t really change the research that’s already published, having scientists be aware of this bias will hopefully inspire them to move the field forward. When we conduct inclusive research, we have a higher chance of producing inclusive and effective climate solutions.”

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