The scandal-du-jour is that the Donald Trump is reported to have referred to El Salvador, Haiti and essentially the entire African continent as "s**thole" countries. Despite the eruption of condemnation from many corners, the truth may be uglier than we would like to admit—that many people subconsciously hold a blanket negative view of countries like these We in the science community are not exempt from this.
The news today is host to a small-but-steady stream of justifications for why certain countries are plagued by instability, corrupt leadership, poor infrastructure and basic services. This ignores the centuries of policies from multilateral organizations and wealthy countries to systematically plunder these countries of natural and human resources, prop up bad leaders and shackle their economies.
Similarly, when we criticize developing-country governments for not leading local investment in research and science we ignore the many years in which these same governments were advised to invest in primary education, basic infrastructure, anything but higher education and research. We allow international funders to justify taking a back seat and continue funding science disproportionately in wealthy countries.
Additional justifications are made that the urgency of finding cures for pandemics and other pressing problems requires funding scientists in scientifically-advanced countries to reach translatable results as quickly as possible. There is certainly a cost-benefit argument to be made for this, looking only at the scientific landscape of today, but this approach perpetuates the cycle of under-investment. Countries that are scientifically lagging today have no hope of advancing in the future without investment now.
In response to this, I frequently hear it argued that such scientists should therefore build their base by focusing on training students and practicing introductory level research, leaving the cutting-edge work to scientists in more advanced economies. In the most recent instance, I was told by an American scientist that a colleague in southern Africa should work on “setting up basic molecular biology techniques” and leave such things as CRISPR development to scientists like her. This argument is fundamentally patronizing and relegates scientists in certain countries to being hobbyists and not “real scientists”.
What’s more, this biased image of scientists from poorer countries locks them out of the cycle of science as we know it: funding builds strong infrastructure and secures high-level equipment and trainees, which produce robust trusted data, which lead to high profile publications, which beget more funding and collaborations. Scientists in the developing world cannot get a foot in the door without receiving research-based funds, which are far less likely to be available to set up a basic PCR lab for its own sake. It is in fact a very savvy move to strengthen molecular biology infrastructure by tying it to a high-tech, “sexy” area such as CRISPR.
Today my newsfeed is full of examples of noteworthy achievements, laudable moments of heroism and other signs that people from the countries singled out are in fact noble and worthy. This haste to "prove" the value of certain kinds of people through extraordinary accomplishments reveals a very deep level of prejudice.
Likewise in science we highlight the individuals who have managed to establish global reputations and produce unassailably respectable results in cutting-edge fields. These individuals rightly deserve funding, collaborations and accolades, but by celebrating them we do not absolve ourselves of bias against their countries and compatriots. Rather, we reinforce the “there can be only one” narrative and the idea that only superhuman efforts are evidence of worth, which in turn reinforce the implication that their environments as a whole are short on potential.
Reversing this broad-based level of implicit bias is not going to be simple. It has to be rooted out on many fronts. At the most significant level, the investment in leveling the playing field for scientific infrastructure must be everyone’s responsibility—governments of all countries as well as independent foundations and multilaterals. We must take into account the longstanding under-investment in certain regions and provide adequate funding to leapfrog researchers to a competitive level of infrastructure as well as fund them to carry out genuinely cutting-edge research.
Small-focus issues need fixing too. Something as simple as a researcher’s institutional affiliation can be reacted to reflexively as grounds for dismissal of a grant application or a manuscript. So many researchers are never discovered by potential collaborators, funders or journalists because their work is published in regional or national journals which are excluded from our publication indexing systems. Again, even the definition of high profile journals needs to be examined for deep-seated bias.
Very few of us would ever go on record saying that a country is a “s**thole” scientifically or otherwise. But this is not a debate about transgressing the lines of polite acceptable language. This is about ensuring that beyond our words, our core beliefs and our subsequent actions serve to create a scientific community that is at last, globally equitable.