Working together to get the job done

There are thought to be approximately 8.7 million different species of animals, plants and fungi in the world (Hawaii University).

To date, we have only described 1.3 million of them.

That leaves over 7 million extant species to be discovered, identified, named and described.

Last year, researchers knocked 229 off that list, and described another 36 that are known to have been extinct for over 20 million years.

Though this may seem underwhelming at first, when you consider that by far the most biodiverse regions of the world, the Amazon rainforest and the deep Ocean, are the two most unexplored ecosystems on our planet, and that all the obvious species have already been identified, 229 new species isn’t bad.

But discovering these new species does not necessarily mean that there are now fewer to find. Evolution will not stand still while we catch up – there are countless speciation events that have and will result in the rise of at least one, distinct new species.

Identification of new species is not an individual task. Several articles that reported these recent findings allude to the work of ‘international collaborators’ that contributed to the process: collaborators with a range of expertise and experience in relevant fields of study.

In general, it is rarely the work of one individual or organisation that builds or advances knowledge. Even notable, historical figures such as Isaac Newton and Captain James Cook, who have broadly been accredited as almost solely responsible for some revolutionary discoveries, did not describe the laws of gravity or cross the Pacific Ocean alone. Sadly, and in some cases intentionally, collaborators can be abandoned, disregarded and forgotten.

But there is a growing recognition in the natural science community of the need to encourage both inter-disciplinary and cross-cultural collaboration between research groups, but more specifically to encourage leaders of these groups to acknowledge their collaborators in an academic context.

Through advocating these types of collaboration, we would widen the scope of discovery to encompass regions previously unvisited as well as raise the profile of investigative projects in local areas, encouraging the continuation of research beyond the initial steps.

Collaboration in theory

In the simplest sense, collaboration is about communication between cooperating partners that have a common aim.

Inherent to collaboration is the idea that all parties must contribute, support and ultimately benefit from the project they are involved in. That contributions are complimentary is vital to achieve the goals such projects set out to achieve. But although the value each party adds to the expedition must serve to increase productivity and achieve targets, it is rarely evenly-balanced: one party often contributes more than the others.

This is almost entirely down to the financial disparities between those that lead a project, invariably recognised, occidental organisations, and those that are ‘employed’ to assist in the field: often experienced, native mavens.

As a result, the duty to integrate more local groups into research, or even corporate-driven, investigations must surely lie with those who financially support these projects?

In circumstances where both, or all, parties have the funds to invest, each collaborator has the power, or at least the opportunity, to be able to influence a decision. What is rare, and hence the current attention, is collaboration of the financially well-endowed with unrecognised, poorer businesses such as local guides or experts. What is rarer still is the recognition these local personnel receive: it is, and has been, far below the level of input they actually have in planning and carrying out a project.

Why is it an issue?

In articles I have read, explorers and conservationists often seem surprised by the level of contribution a local individual or group gives.

It would not be surprising that, at least occasionally, indigenous people know more about their environment than do those funding an investigation. It would therefore seem not only sensible but advantageous to engage with local experts more, utilise their knowledge and subsequently recognise them in professional reports.

It is certainly, in some part, through tradition that explorers and conservationists are stubborn in their methods: stereotypical, post-colonial male explorers intent on being the first to achieve something. Throughout recent history, this has been the case, almost to the level of trying to outdo previous missions in order to obtain a more impressive accolade.

Alternatively, or more likely in addition, there is a level of ignorance or naivety (it is hard to tell) that has led to the capability of those outside our immediate contact being underestimated. Writing as a white, educated, Westerner, as many researchers are, we believe that we should know what is best, or how to achieve something most successfully because we have invested so much time, money and effort into our academics.

I do not think you can blame us for that. Without investment and ambition to explore, research and learn more about our environment, we would not be in the position we are in. But in order to further our understanding of the natural or the human environment, we must acknowledge the role collaboration beyond basic assistance can have.

Collaboration in practice

The difficulty in maintaining a collaborative approach beyond field work lies in communication.

The evolution of the internet has undoubtedly enabled the recent surge in understanding: recruiting expedition personnel, disseminating research findings and collating past data have all improved since the inception of social media, email and telephone.

Such technologies make it easy for corporate organisations to arrange meetings. However, when those with the best knowledge of the region of interest or the greatest expertise of a certain species live in undeveloped or rural locations, this is not a feasible method of communication.

But problems can occur at even more basic levels: language barriers can cause miscommunication, confusion and inefficiency, particularly when using technical terms as research projects require.

Though these fundamental language issues exist, we cannot assume, even if it may be the case, that non-Anglophone collaborators do not understand the ins and outs of an investigation: it may simply suggest that we are not communicating our ideas in the best manner possible.

This is where cross-discipline collaboration can come into greater use.

Collaborations between scientists, geographers and mathematicians are relatively commonplace in academic investigations. But multilinguals can be equally valuable to an expedition. Communicating with a foreign individual can inform you of the local culture, lifestyle, religion or tradition as well as knowledge of the ecosystem you are working in. In other words, we can learn a lot more about an environment than we would do working in silence.

There is a risk that, should Western industries continue to forsake smaller yet essential international collaborators, conservation and wildlife projects, such as those that uncover and identify species, could become more expensive, more time consuming and less relevant.

Looking forward, collaboration should extend beyond basic help in the field: the entire process from planning to publishing should incorporate a higher level of collaboration between participants than is current.