Geri Richmond: International Science Collaborations Need Equal Partnerships

AAAS President Geri Richmond at the 2016 AAAS Annual Meeting in Washington, D.C. | Boston Atlantic Photography

In Vietnam, two electrical engineers have turned the first floor of their home into a makers' lab for students. In Cameroon, a nutritionist is sounding the alarm about recycled water bottles leaching harmful chemicals into cooking oil. And in the Caribbean, a disaster management expert who has helped to develop risk management plans for Jamaica and the Cayman Islands appears on television enough to be an autograph-signing celebrity.

The world is going to need all of these scientists, working as equal partners with their counterparts in developed countries, to solve border-crossing challenges like climate change and virus outbreaks, said AAAS President Geri Richmond at the 2016 AAAS Annual Meeting.

The best science happens, Richmond said, "when everyone is at the table and has an equal voice, when creativity flows with different perspectives from different countries, different institutions, and different backgrounds."

In her presidential address on 11 February, Richmond explained why she had promoted the 2016 meeting theme of global science engagement, and offered five suggestions for putting partnerships between developed and developing countries on a more equal footing.

These five elements have been shaped by her own globe-trotting experiences in founding and directing the international career advancement program COACh, and in her role as U.S. Science Envoy to Thailand and the Lower Mekong River countries including Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. Through these experiences, she said, "I've gained an appreciation of the talent that is out there, and also the need for collaborations with students and researchers in those countries."

Build trust. Richmond told the story of geologists she encountered in South America who helped U.S. scientists set up monitoring and research stations in their countries to study natural hazards such as earthquakes and volcanoes. The South American scientists were discouraged by U.S. scientists who "would then leave with the data, and [the South American scientists] would not get acknowledged in some publications," Richmond recalled. "So I hope this is an exception to the rule, but it's important for us to understand that a true collaboration that is sustainable is built on trust, where these truly are shared experiments."

AAAS President Geri Richmond and Hashemite University molecular biologist Rana Dajani at the 2016 AAAS Annual Meeting. | Boston Atlantic Photography

Listen to learn. In Cameroon, Richmond spoke with a nutritionist at the University of Yaounde about research challenges, and the nutritionist asked if Richmond had heard about problems with palm oil. Richmond's thoughts turned quickly to the deforestation linked to palm oil farming, but the nutritionist instead explained that she was worried about the deterioration of recycled plastic water bottles used to store palm oil for cooking, and whether they might be leaching endocrine disruptor chemicals into the oil. "It was an issue that I never would have heard about unless I had talked to her to find ways that we could collaborate," Richmond said.

Talent is everywhere. With obvious glee, Richmond described several scientists and engineers she has met across the world who she calls "her heroes," including Vietnam engineers Hoi Nguyen Ba and Thu Thi Anh Nguyen, who turned the bottom floor of their home over to students wielding power drills to create a makers' space called Fablab Danang, and Caribbean disaster management expert Barbara Carby, who directs the University of the West Indies Disaster Risk Reduction Centre.

Battle your biases. "If we look to our journals to see how many papers are there with authors from developing countries, in most fields you will find very few," Richmond said. That doesn't mean, she cautioned, that there are no quality researchers from these countries. In many of the places where Richmond has traveled, particularly in Africa and South America, scientists tell her how difficult it is to get access to their discipline's top journals. Scientists from developed countries need to make greater efforts to invite papers and paper reviewers from developing countries, she said, and publishers should continue their efforts to subsidize journal subscription rates in these countries.

Get the whole picture. Social, cultural, and behavioral issues matter when it comes to solving scientific problems, Richmond said, helping to explain why bed nets handed out to protect against malaria in Rwanda are sometimes repurposed for fishing nets, or why solar panels in Vietnam are abandoned when they break. She spoke about the problem of childhood growth stunting in developing countries such as Laos, where stunted children can become more susceptible to disease. Cultural customs in Southeast Asia can sometimes include dieting during pregnancy to avoid delivering a large baby without help in a rural area, or giving infants chewed rice in lieu of breast milk. "So if you don't understand those customs, and you don't understand those issues, and you haven't done the cultural studies," Richmond said, "then you won't understand the right solution."

Richmond was introduced by Chair of the AAAS Board and the Margaret and Herman Sokol Professor of Biology at the Whitehead Institute at MIT Gerald Fink, and National Science Foundation Director France Cordóva and Smithsonian Institution Director David Skorton, the local co-chairs for the 2016 meeting. Richmond also read a note to the meeting from President Barack Obama, who said "AAAS inspires people to push limits and reminds us that we can all play a party in building a more innovative, inclusive tomorrow."