It’s all connected: Bridging the gap between scientific research and local knowledge

by Gina Errico

After spending several weeks in Costa Rica running my field study, practicing my novel Spanish speaking skills, I turned to my field assistant and asked for him to pass me my field notebook, “Puedes darme el cuaderno?” (which translates to “can you give me the notebook” in English). He looked at me, confused, and the panic began to set in. Did I say something wrong?

If my K-12 Spanish classes had taught me anything, it was how to say ‘notebook’ in Spanish– right? The sing-a-long song of school supplies came to a crashing halt in my head. I tried again, “el cuaderno?”…. still nothing. My field assistant and I had been learning to communicate words we didn’t know in each others language by describing them to each other, as he was learning English and I was learning Spanish. So I tried once again, “la cosa amarilla?” (‘the yellow thing?’ in English). The lab notebook was the only yellow thing in my pack, so that clicked for him, “Ohhhhhhh,” he said, “la libreta!”

The what?

As with the English language, Spanish has different pronunciations and names for words depending on the location. While I was aware of this, I didn’t think that such a common word I learned in school, had different names. It’s sort of like visiting the U.S. from England and being confused when you ask a waiter for ‘chips’ and he brings out potato chips, because in the U.S. we call them ‘french fries’.

Language differences create a huge barrier for scientists who conduct research in foreign countries. This oftentimes leads to a disconnect between the locals and visiting scientists. It creates a phenomenon known as ‘parachute’ or ‘helicopter’ research: Where researchers visit a foreign country to collect specimens or conduct research, without acknowledging local insights and failing to report their findings to them. This has become a huge issue in a world where we are constantly fighting scientific misinformation. It also has a negative effect on science, because more often than not, locals are aware of the changes in their environment than outsiders. If the locals are not consulted, it can leave out important and key information for science.

While I was in Costa Rica, I made an active effort to speak with the locals. Not only those who worked at the field station, but with the farmers and foresters whose property I worked on. And while my Spanish could (and still can) use some improving, they were excited to discuss the changes they had noticed and the issues they were facing, as well as learn about the results I found as a part of my study. They also provided vital information that helped explain some of the results I found in my study. The management of coffee plantations, age of forests, and length of time that forests had been near coffee plantations, were all of things I had learned by communicating with the locals, and could not have figured out on my own.

During my time in Costa Rica, the importance of incorporating local knowledge into science research was strongly reinforced for me. Without it, I would be missing important information explaining my findings, and would probably still be (lost) in the forests of Costa Rica. This has inspired me to work with other scientists to help them do the same. By connecting with locals, we can both improve our research, but expand the understanding and acceptance of science across the globe. It has also resulted in the creation of my passion project: The Coffee Conflict, where I am working to highlight to social and ecological issues of coffee farms and forests being faced in southern Costa Rica in a bilingual blog.

As scientists, it is our duty to ensure that our work reaches the audiences that are most affected by our work, because it affects them and the areas they live in. By sharing our work in a digestible way (or finding someone to help us do so), we can increase the public’s confidence in science and their understanding of it, which will support scientific literacy, decrease the spread of misinformation, and maybe even increase support of funding science in the future.