Dec 14 2022 | Posted by WUN

Equitable research partnerships aren’t ‘extractive’

harrison article

Global challenges require solutions that arise from equitable and mutually beneficial research partnerships in which the voice and agency of all are valued, says Sue Harrison, deputy vice-chancellor at the University of Cape Town.

Those partnerships hinge on resources, Harrison argued at the Worldwide Universities Network Presidents Forum during the 2022 Annual General Meeting. And that doesn’t only mean funding in the traditional sense.

“We tend to think of money, or funding, as the thing that drives and controls the partnership,” she says in an interview. “And we think of understanding the environment and culture, or speaking the language of the people you want to study, all of those things, we tend to think of as “a free good” in the same way as we used to think of fresh water, clean air and fertile soil as a “free good”. But they’re not a free good. They’re part of what you bring to the research partnership, as essential as funding for generating applicable new knowledge.”

Harrison makes an analogy to environmentalism: We desperately need progress toward the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals because of the damage done by a mindset that values capital and labour, but considers resources from the natural environment as free for the taking.

Harrison’s apt ecological metaphor also applies to another aspect of research partnerships: data storage. When sample collection takes place in the Global South, the data often travels with members of the research team to the Global North. These data may then enter a database that all collaborators on the project don’t have access to, especially those from their location in the Global South. Harrison refers to this as a new version of colonial resource extraction, in which the environmental legacy remains at the original site but “all the value goes somewhere else.” Similarly, she says, researchers in the Global South who cannot access data or who aren’t present for its analysis in the Global North are positioned into a less valued role in the partnership, to their detriment. To the detriment of the project and knowledge creation, they cannot add their valuable perspectives built through situational analysis into the analysis.

As a positive counterexample, Harrison describes the Inter-university Institute for Data Intensive Astronomy, a big data facility in South Africa whose data is available anywhere in the world. At the same time, detailed analysis is equally contributed to from the global south. This development provides an example of facilitating equity in international research partnerships.

A final element of many research partnerships is publication, but inequity is present there as well, says Harrison. Publishing in open-access journals is often suggested as a remedy to publishing in journals that universities in the Global South may not be able to afford access to. That does mean that one’s colleagues in other African nations could access your work, says Harrison, but it’s not a panacea. Open-access publishing often includes hefty fees, especially if your university is not one of those with substantial bargaining power. These are costs that Harrison says rival the support she could offer graduate students. Being forced to make such tradeoffs puts researchers in the Global South at a disadvantage.

In total, we must pay attention to the “inequities of the past to build towards an equitable and robust future,” said Harrison to WUN colleagues at the Presidents Forum. “Often these inequities of the past are the result of historic inequities and regional exploitations so we can’t really just set them aside.” Instead, she points to conscious efforts toward equity, such as the 26 South African universities joining forces to handle library acquisitions at the national level and so increase their voice. That sort of collective work to attend to past and present inequities is the way forward, Harrison maintains.

This talk is available on YouTube, view it here: