How can technology promote inclusivity?
The COVID-19 pandemic, sadly, doesn’t seem to have taught the human species as much as we might have hoped. But one thing we all figured out: a lot of things can be done virtually, with some careful thought and a large serving of advanced technology. This includes, of course, dodging a commute and attending a meeting in your bedroom slippers (definitely a net improvement in all our lives). But it goes far beyond that, and it’s becoming clear that one welcome change will be making research in the natural sciences more accessible and more inclusive – so more scientists than ever before will be able to contribute.
My own field of ecology has long had an inclusivity problem. Well, a number of them, actually, but one that’s particularly acute for ecology is its traditional heavy reliance on boots on the ground: on researchers travelling to field sites to observe nature and conduct experiments in person. While sometimes “the field” is an on-campus garden, just as often it’s an alpine meadow, an Antarctic ice shelf, or a remote coral reef. This has made ecology inequitable because it’s excluded researchers who are physically unable to do the travel, whose family commitments preclude it, or (and this one hits especially hard in the Global South) whose research support simply isn’t sufficient to pay for it. These issues aren’t unique to ecology, of course; they’re equally acute for the geosciences and to a lesser degree across the natural sciences.
The Pandemic Pivot Project
Early in the pandemic, my ecological colleagues and I quickly realized that travel restrictions would force us to reinvent our research – and the “Pandemic Pivot Project” was born. We needed ways to answer ecological questions without travel and without gathering large field crews – and advanced technology, in many cases, made this possible. Ecologists trawled citation databases, scoured satellite imagery, explored digitized herbarium collections, and pulled plant and animal sighting records from iNaturalist. A flood of innovative research based on these technologies is now hitting our literature. These advances have joined others that reduce the need for research to be restricted to a researcher’s eyes always at the site: drones for high-resolution imagery; GPS tags for tracking animal movement from afar; even Google Earth as a tool for scouting field sites and access routes to reduce the number or difficulty of visits.
Let me develop just one of those a little bit more: iNaturalist – an online platform where anyone can upload photographs of plants and animals they’ve seen, and have them (often) automatically identified. iNaturalist has enormous potential in ecology. Ecologists have historically spent a lot of time and effort documenting the occurrence and appearance (colour, morphology, etc.) of species across their ranges. Where morphology changes a species’ range, are the transitions sudden or gradual, and do they move in space? Are species most abundant near their range centres? When a plant species has more than one flower colour, does colour variation depend on latitude? Once, data to answer these questions might have come from a single researcher crisscrossing the country for week after week of long, exhausting days. iNaturalist offers a way to replace that single, labour-intensive observer with an army of “community scientists” – amateurs who together can make far more observations than even the most field-committed individual researcher. In fact, iNaturalist amateurs can often reveal more about the natural world than traditional approaches – for example, documenting as many as five times more fish species on tropical reefs than researchers’ own surveys.
Availability, Awareness, and Acceptance
None of these technologies was new in 2020 (although all have improved rapidly in recent years), but the pandemic played an important role nonetheless. There are three conditions without which a new technology won’t be widely adopted: availability, awareness, and acceptance. A technology must exist and be good enough for its purpose: availability. Researchers must know it exists and how to apply it: awareness. And finally, researchers must accept it as a valid approach to science. For many technologies, Pandemic Pivot Projects brought awareness and acceptance from ecological researchers.
The real payoff here won’t be from those Pandemic Pivot Projects; or at least, not directly. The real payoff lies in the potential for these technologies to lower barriers to participation by researchers worldwide. If I could harness technology to continue research while the pandemic kept me from my field sites, imagine the potential for those always challenged by fieldwork. Physical disabilities, injuries, family commitments, budgetary limitations: all can (potentially) be overcome. This is incredibly exciting because science progresses best when everyone can participate.
There’s another inclusivity angle here too. Advanced technology isn’t just for doing research; it can also allow an audience to see it happening in ways that weren’t possible before. Imagine, for example, virtual reality harnessed to “bring” a middle-school science class to a bird-banding station in a tropical rain forest – with researchers from their local university, perhaps even live and responding to questions in real-time. Not, of course, that ecological research is always fascinating to watch happen (much of my own would, sadly, be virtual-reality paint drying). But with new tech coupled with storytelling expertise, perhaps we’ll be able to share an experience more immersive, more authentic, and more relatable than the venerable science documentary. And that could help fix a stubborn inequity: for young students the ability to experience field research and to be inspired by that experience to a career in science, is (mostly) restricted to the most financially privileged. Technology may let us share our field work with everyone.
How new technologies are opening up science
As an ecologist, I’m intrigued by field-assistive technology, but of course, that’s not the only way new technologies are opening up science. Inexpensive DNA sequencing means that molecular ecology isn’t restricted to a few richly-funded labs. Online and hybrid conferences mean more researchers can share their science on a global scale. ChatGPT and other “generative language models” are beginning to make writing for publication easier for scientists whose first language isn’t English. No technology is a panacea, of course – each new approach requires careful assessment and deployment and will complement rather than replace traditional approaches. But the signs are clear: the times they are a-changin’, with more ways for more people to unlock their full potential as scientists. Let’s go.
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