There’s no hope to conserve the ocean’s biodiversity unless scientists look inward and improve diversity in their own ranks. That’s the message that Asha de Vos, a Sri Lankan marine biologist, delivered to an international meeting of marine mammalogists in Halifax, Canada, in October.
De Vos is founder of Oceanswell, an organization she launched this year to help students from underrepresented nations conduct and communicate marine science. She argues that the health of coastlines depends on local people, yet too often they are ignored or dismissed. The practice of “parachute science,” in which Western researchers drop into developing countries to collect data and leave without training or investing in the region, not only harms communities, it cripples conservation efforts, according to De Vos.
She has first-hand experience. From Sri Lanka, she made her research career by studying blue whales in the Indian Ocean, which she discovered to be the only population that stays in tropical waters year round. Few scientists had paid attention to the whales before.
Oceans Deeply spoke with De Vos about how marine research and conservation could be more effective by investing in scientists and communities around the world.
Oceans Deeply: You recently called on marine researchers to be better at sharing skills, knowledge and funding with people in developing countries. Can you describe what you meant by that?
Asha de Vos: Seventy percent of our planet is oceans. Seventy percent of our coastlines are in the developing world. But we have no representation at the global stage. I actually asked the audience to look at each other and look around the room, because there was hardly anybody from outside North America, some of the bigger European countries and Australia. We want to save the oceans. If that is what our drive is, then we need to have custodians on every coastline. We can’t save the oceans if all of the funds are being pumped into specific nations.
If you want to protect that coastline, you can’t have 10 people from one country going into different countries and trying to save entire coastlines. It doesn’t make any sense. Local people, they live on those coastlines. They speak the languages, and they see the problems every day. They may be part of the problem.
There is a community aspect to it – where they can communicate to the people who live next door to them better than people coming from outside and telling people what to do. That is really patronizing. As soon as you get people who come from within the system, who speak the same language and who are relatable, you will suddenly start to see change.
If we want to protect what is on all of these coastlines, we can’t have parachute science happening. We can’t have people from outside coming into our countries, doing work and leaving, because there is no sustainability in that model.
Oceans Deeply: In many Western countries, limited scientific funding often goes to a small number of people, largely based on experience and prestige. Are you also calling for a general reform of how science is done?
De Vos: Overall, I think that we do need general reform. Business as usual hasn’t worked, right? The oceans are not in a better state. They’re getting worse. We need to start thinking, “OK, how can we change what is happening? How can we invest in human capital in places that need it?”
Funding bodies should be more conscious about how they administer their funding. It is not just about having a local counterpart – you need to make that local counterpart a lead. You need to mentor them to write the grant. It is the big institutions and funding bodies that really control what happens in these fields. The reason people want to publish and publish is because their tenure track job depends on it. If institutions instead started saying, “Look, what is your actual impact? What are you actually doing on the ground? How does what you do translate?” Then people have an obligation to go beyond [publishing].
I can understand the plight of the scientist as well. I broke out of that system. I never believed in the system, so I couldn’t stay in academia because that just doesn’t work for me. I want to have impact.
Oceans Deeply: How did you end up in your career, and what challenges did you face because you’re from Sri Lanka?
De Vos: I was inspired by National Geographic as a kid. At 18, I told people that I wanted to be a marine biologist. I come from South Asia where the culture is: either you’re a doctor, lawyer, engineer, a business person or you’re wasting your time. Lucky for me I had parents who said, “Do what you love, you’ll do it well.”
I went to the University of St. Andrews, where I did my undergraduate. I needed field experience, but I couldn’t get it in Sri Lanka, so I saved a bunch of money – I dug potatoes in potato fields in Scotland. I managed to get myself to New Zealand, and while I was there I heard of a research vessel that was stopping in the Maldives and Sri Lanka.
I wrote to them every single day for three months – and this was back in the day of internet cafes. I was living in a tent, but I was using the little bit of money that I had to convince people to let me get on board. Eventually, I think that they got so tired of me that they said I could come on board for two weeks in the Maldives. They loved me, so they kept me on for six months in Sri Lanka as well.
I got this experience, and then I went off to do my master’s at Oxford. When I was working on the research vessel, the Odyssey, I had my eureka moment because I encountered an aggregation of blue whales. I realized that these whales were not like normal blue whales, as my textbooks and professors had [told me]. Blue whales usually go to cold waters to feed and warm waters to breed. The poo was evidence that they were actually feeding in these warm, tropical waters 5 degrees above the equator. I thought that was fascinating.
Oceans Deeply: How did these experiences help form your understanding of the need for diversity in marine science?
De Vos: It is a result of me being Sri Lankan and local that I have been able to pioneer blue whale research in the northern Indian Ocean. I launched the first long-term study of this population. Over 10 years we have unraveled all of these mysteries, because I am local and I am interested in engagement.
The more people that I can touch with the stories of these whales, the bigger the army [of conservationists] and that is what is going to make the difference. When I started working with these blue whales, People didn’t know that we had whales in our waters. Now, there are more [Sri Lankan] students than ever before wanting to become marine biologists. I just established Sri Lanka’s first marine conservation research and education organization, called Oceanswell.
Oceans Deeply: Have you seen progress in training and investing in local communities?
De Vos: Yes. After the Society of Marine Mammalogy talk, I had people lining up to give their cards. There are people who invest, and not just in the developing world. There are now Inuit communities who are able to run their own PCR machines because someone went in there and helped set up a lab, even if you don’t have all the right conditions.
There are people out there who are doing incredible work and that don’t get highlighted, which is unfortunate. Transfer of knowledge is not valued in our scientific system in the same way as research.
I have had people approach me and say, “Can you get me a research permit so that I can do research in your country?” and I say no. We have talent, so provide opportunity. You come and train our people and then have the confidence to leave and watch this project grow, and then this becomes your legacy because it continues to grow for generations. You are creating something that is sustainable rather than coming in and trying to drive your own agenda.
A previous version of this article incorrectly captioned and credited a photo of the north Indian Ocean blue whale taken by Asha de Vos. This information has been corrected.