Science on a shoestring: the researchers paid $15 a month

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Science on a shoestring: the researchers paid $15 a month


Adam Levy: 00:02

Hello, I’m Adam Levy and this is Working Scientist, a Nature Careers podcast. This episode: how research is held back in restricted economies

This seven-part series is all about freedom and safety in research, how the context science is carried out in affects the lives and work of researchers.

Already in this series, we’ve discussed how the invasion of Ukraine has disrupted Ukrainian scientists and broken research ties with Russia.

We’ve also looked at scientific integrity, investigating political interference and whistleblower retaliation.

Each episode in the series concludes with a follow-up sponsored slot from the International Science Council, (the ISC), about how it’s exploring freedom, responsibility and safety in science.

And today’s episode is looking at how science is held back when the economic situation of a country is held back. How can researchers conduct their work in resource-poor regions? And what can the international community do to support scientists, wherever they are in the world?

First up today, we’ll meet Emmanuel Unuabonah from the Redeemer’s University in Nigeria. Emmanuel is a material chemist developing fundamental materials for the cleanup of water.

So what difference does it make to Emmanuels’s work, that he’s carrying it out in a country with lower income and lower funding opportunities than, say, the United States or Germany?

Emmanuel Unuabonah: 01:44

Yeah, the difference is that we do not have the basic tools to carry out research here in Nigeria, as opposed to developed countries where you have basic tools, basic instruments and facilities to carry out research.

Here, we have to make do with the very little we have. And sometimes we try to use some kind of, innovate some kind of techniques to be able to carry out our research.

Adam Levy: 02:11

Could you give maybe an example of a time you’ve not been able to do things, maybe the more conventional way, and you’ve had to innovate?

Emmanuel Unuabonah 02:19

I’m not sure you really want to hear what I want to say. There was a time while I was doing my PhD. I remember very clearly that we had no shaker in the department where I did my PhD at that time.

And what I simply had to do because I needed to shake some of my samples. So I put the bottles in a bucket, and I started shaking the buckets to and fro on my hand.

So that was my only chance of agitating those particles inside the bottles with the liquid in it.

Adam Levy: 02:57

Now, of course, that’s a case where you could find a creative solution around the problem. But are there, are there examples of when you simply can’t explore the scientific questions that you would want to because of the lack of resources?

Emmanuel Unuabonah: 03:11

Exactly, yes. Very recently, we discovered that we’re supposed to track some micro pollutants, some contaminants of emerging concerns, which are organic in nature, in water. Antibiotics to be specific.

And we try to use the simple HPLC, the high performance liquid chromatography we had in the lab, and we discovered that we’re not able to detect these micro pollutants in the water because the concentrations at which they occur in the water, were just lower than the the instrument’s sensitivity.

So we needed an LCMS, An LCMS is the is a liquid chromatography mass spec, and we did not have an LCMS. So there was nothing we could really do.

Adam Levy: 03:58

Now, how does the infrastructure within Nigeria, for example, power supply, affect research? I mean, I know for this call, for example, it’s been a bit of a challenge for us to connect to each other.

Emmanuel Unuabonah: 04:10

It’s really a big challenge. What we simply had to do in my lab was to buy a generating set, an electricity generating set, to support some of our equipment that we work with in the lab.

We rarely get power supply from the national grid for more than eight hours in a day. So we have to spend our money buying fuel or gasolin eto use some of the equipment we have in the lab. And this is really, really, really expensive for us.

Adam Levy: 04:40

What about when it comes to funding, both for research and also for studentsm to carry out their studies?

Emmanuel Unuabonah 04:47

There are no fundings, to be frank. There are no fundings for research here in Nigeria. Though there is some amount of funding from the National Research Fund, but that fund is limited to public universities as you know, I am in a private system in a private university. So what we simply do is hunt for grants.

Like I told my students, I’ve become a hunter. So I hunt for grants. For some of these students, they benefit from these grants, because we then support their laboratory experiments with these grants. And in some cases, where the grants allow, we also pay for their school fees.

Adam Levy: 05:27

How do all of these issues feed into a potential brain drain for Nigeria, where talented students often end up leaving the country to continue their careers in higher income countries?

Emmanuel Unuabonah: 05:40

It is a very serious issue. For example, in my lab, I can give you a vivid example. I had a very brilliant student, and we were working on a project. He is a PhD student.

After two years, he got a scholarship to a university in the United States of America. And he left us. And he was someone who was, we trained on the use of the HPLC, the high performance, liquid chromatographic equipment.

And he was so used to it, and he was very good at it. And in fact, he was supporting the laboratory. But unfortunately, we lost him to the United States of America, and we have to start afresh. So it’s really a serious problem. And it’s affecting our output, our research output, here in Nigeria.

Adam Levy: 06:25

On the flip side, is there any potential for collaborations with wealthier labs in order to help you carry out your research?

Emmanuel Unuabonah 06:32

Yes, we do have. And receantly we struck one good collaboration with German laboratory. They have been able to give us some funding to be able to purchase a used high performance liquid chromatography mass spec equipment.

Adam Levy: 06:49

What’s your hope, then, for the future of research within Nigeria?

Emmanuel Unuabonah: 06:54

We have some of the best brains, I can tell you the truth. But the problem is we do not have funding. Only, and if only we have sufficient funding, I think there is hope for research, there is hope for science in in Nigeria.

All it requires is funding and good administrative management for scientific fundings in Nigeria. I think that will solve the problem.

I’m someone who believes that Africans can solve their problems. I mean, we could have solutions to our problems from within us.

If only we can look inwards, and take science a bit more serious, and do something about some of our infrastructures for scientific research.

Adam Levy: 07:41

That was Emmanuel Unuabonah. Earlier in this series, I spoke with Nana Voitenko of the Kiev Academic University in Ukraine, regarding her experiences of the conflict.

But as she was starting her career in Kiev, she had to deal with very different research challenges, as she struggled to perform science in a struggling economy.

Nana Voitenko: 08:05

In the 90s it was really difficult to survive because of insufficient financial support. So can you imagine that my salary at that time was like $5 a month and a huge level of inflation just make it equal to zero.

Because after I get my salary, I could buy only, like, bread or milk, and not both. Either bread or milk.

So in this situation, a lot of scientists left, and I also left Kiev because that was the only way to survive at that time.

Either you left science and go to some industry or some commercial structures, or you should go abroad. So I choose the second way. But when I returned back at the end of 90s, the situation was much better.

And I really believed at that time that we could somehow build the new laboratories, new centres. We did quite well before the COVID.

So COVID and war just dramatically interrupted it. So, and we now we we have to start from zero.

Adam Levy: 09:39

If you haven’t already, be sure to listen to the first episode in this series to hear just how the war has affected research in Ukraine, as well as Nana herself.

In many resource-poor regions, the struggle is to build up a thriving research landscape. But for some countries, a relatively healthy science sector is suddenly disrupted as the profound economic troubles hit.

This is what’s happened to science in Venezuela, where experimental physicist Ismardo Bonalde is based. He works on superconductivity at the Venezuelan Institute of Scientific Research.

He’s also president of the Academy of Physical, Mathematical and Natural Sciences of Venezuela, and so is ideally placed to give an overview of the situation in the country. When we spoke Ismardo started out by explaining just how challenging the economic situation is.

Ismardo Bonalde: 10:37

Well it’s really bad. It has been really bad for maybe 15 years or so. Everything in the country is suffering this situation. Sometimes food were lacking in the supermarkets and all these things.

But now, we have food and all the things in the market, but the salaries are not improving. Production in Venezuela is almost non-existent. It’s horrible, but this led to a very dense, somehow situation in the social aspect, right?

Adam Levy: 11:10

And how has this affected research specifically within the country?

Ismardo Bonalde: 11:14

There have been no funding for research for more than five years in research institutes. And more than 15 in universities. Researchers also have no opportunity to access funding, neither the in public nor in the private sector, basically, labs and any kind of resource is very slow motion in this country.

Adam Levy: 11:35

How has this affected not just research but also higher education for university students?

Ismardo Bonalde: 11:43

Well, equally affected, almost non-support. And the last few years students becoming fewer and fewer as young people look for other ways to face the future, including leaving the country.

Just remember the Venezuelan diaspora is around 7 million people.

In our nation that is 30 million. So students or professors are just leaving the country. You have no money for the faculties, any kind of faculties. In the graduate school it is basically you have no students in science at least.

Adam Levy: 12:17

And can you give a sense of just how many researchers themselves have ended up leaving the country?

Ismardo Bonalde: 12:23

Well, the faculties have been reduced by 50-60%, mainly due to very low salaries and social uncertainty, the lack of funding for resource and all these kinds of things.

Adam Levy: 12:35

How has the economic situation in Venezuela affected your personal research?

Ismardo Bonalde: 12:41

Since 2017, I have my lab closed basically. I haven’t been able to carry any kind of research at all. I mean, I am an experimentalist. That’s the first thing we need to know.

And I have no opportunity to run my lab. In the last five-six years I have been doing a little bit of theory, but nothing about my main stream, right?

So I haven’t been able to do it. I have no funding how to do it. I mean, I have been lacking all kinds of materials and all the things we need to run a lab.

Adam Levy: 13:18

So what then has your day-to-day work life looked like?

Ismardo Bonalde: 13:23

If you ask me I have been doing not much in research in the last five, six years. Just a little bit to survive, you know.

Life of course, it doesn’t look, it doesn’t look fine. Because I spend a lot of time in my laboratory, I mean 15-16 hours per day.

And if I’m not able to do any kind of research, you can imagine how how that can be in my personal life.

Adam Levy: 13:50

And how are you able to get by and survive at the moment, given that funding has been so drastically cut?

Ismardo Bonalde: 13:59

I am getting pay. For the last two to three years. So I say it has been better, a little bit better than before. Because sometimes I was getting $30 per month, or $20 per month or $15 per month.

Now I’m getting a little bit more and I’m getting like around $500 per month. And that’s, and that’s the highest salary we can get in Venezuela for our professor, the highest, $500 per month. It is very disruptive, this situation.

But I have to say that many professors, especially the younger one, they have to look around, they have to search for a better source of income to make ends meet. This is a very common situation for for young professors. To have a second job or two or three jobs is very common.

Adam Levy: 14:51

And how did it affect your life when you were earning, you know, 30 or $40 per month? How much did that limit your ability to survive?

Ismardo Bonalde: 15:00

Extremely. I mean limited a lot, it was this constant situation that we cannot leave well, I have no money to buy, to buy food to buy things. In the past, we have very good salaries. So we were saving move of people from my age, have savings, significant savings, because we have a good salary.

And we don’t say this, I was able to survive, I have to say that With $10, you cannot survive with $20 per month, you cannot survive. So I was able to do just because I have savings,

Adam Levy: 15:32

What do you think the international research community could do to perhaps help the situation?

Ismardo Bonalde: 15:38

Where the person or situation like, I don’t think the international community can do much, But for research, they have done things.

And physics for example, is the most dynamic community, I have to say, from different places, especially from you will have been getting help for education for higher education, and for resources.

So we we have some kind of funding, sine times here, a little bit. People can help us but this is not enough. I mean, you cannot expect the people help you to do the whole thing that you need to do. But that is not that is not enough to run, you know, high level r&d In any country, I will say

Adam Levy: 16:23

What are your hopes then for the future of research in Venezuela, and perhaps being able to rebuild it one day?

Ismardo Bonalde: 16:31

Hope. There’s not much hope, I will say, Because all this is about politics. Our social and economic situation is just just driven by the political situation.

We need to change things here seriously, in the country. The country first and, and we have to put our, our efforts and our thoughts in getting this country better.

If we don’t change that, that approach, the approach we are taking now, I don’t think we are going to do anything, not only for research but just living, just simple living conditions, which are extremely bad, right now.

If we change our approach, we can change things around in maybe five or 10 years is not going to be immediately. We need some time to get things around. Well, let me let me tell you something for in regarding scientific production, who have fallen to pre 2000 levels. This mean we have gone back 25 years. You need some time to you know to recover?

Adam Levy: 17:43

So, how do you feel when you take a step back and look at how the situation in Venezuela has changed over the past decades?

Ismardo Bonalde: 17:52

I feel very bad, but somehow I need to be strong. I need to be optimistic because I have students, I have children, I have you know I suppose family. I need to transmit, you know, good feeling to them just to stay alive mentally. It is part of my part of my my duty. I am a full professors a very senior researcher in the country, I need to transmit good feelings.

But internally there is no so easy. It is not so easy when you have this difficulties. You know, you have the economic situation affects you a lot personally in your work. It’s not easy to do that, but I need to do that. And I I think I am doing that somehow.

Adam Levy: 18:47

That was Ismardo Bonalde:, the last of our interviewees in this week’s episode. As discussed today, many researchers struggle with the economics of their state so severely that they end up leaving the country.

But for other researchers moving overseas can be a matter of life and death. So how does displacement disrupt the lives and careers of scientists? We’ll be discussing that in next week’s episode.

Now we have our sponsored slot from the International Science Council about how it’s exploring freedom, responsibility and safety in science. Thanks for listening. I’m Adam Levy.

Guy Berger: 19:38

We’ve moved away from this enlightenment paradigm and, in a way, gone back to Copernicus with knowledge being under siege.

Courtney C. Radsch: 19:45

What’s often less about a shortage of information and more about how to cut through the noise of today’s information-overloaded world.

Marnie Chesterton: 19:54

Hello, and welcome to this podcast series from the International Science Council, where we are exploring scientific freedom and responsibility. I’m Marnie Chesterton, and this episode is all about science communication. How can we convey accurate scientific information and ideas in a world of trolling, censorship, and fake news? And what are the responsibilities of individual scientists, institutions, the media and tech platforms?

It’s never been more important to share scientific findings and insights. Think about the climate crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic or artificial intelligence. And yet, the way that we communicate has transformed over the past few years.

Courtney C. Radsch: 20:44

We see the democratization of science through networks of social media, the open access movement. But we’ve also seen that this is an era of disinformation, of propaganda, of influence operations, and that science has become incredibly politicized. The way that science is communicated is also wound up with technologies and so it is inseparable from the rise of social media, how we collect data, and what we can do with that. So it’s been, I think, both a very exciting time, but also a very challenging time for science communication.

Marnie Chesterton: 21:22

This is Courtney Radsch, a fellow at the UCLA Institute for Technology, Law and Policy.

Courtney C. Radsch: 21:29

Some of the biggest challenges that science communication faces right now is how to cut through the myriad of information sources that are out there to make sure that the findings and exciting discoveries of science are able to make it through the morass. To that end, I think science communication needs to focus on also understanding how our information communication technology, on the kind of algorithmic front, the way that it connects, for example, climate change with flat earth issues with anti-vaccine movements.

Another of the challenges with science is that it can be complex and TikToks and Instagram posts and tweets don’t do well with complexity, and yet that is the dominant way that we communicate.

Marnie Chesterton: 22:21

The modern information landscape makes it possible to reach more people in more ways than ever before. But, as we’ve seen in recent times, it also provides fertile ground for mis- and disinformation.

Courtney C. Radsch: 22:35

When there’s a new topic like COVID, or some new discovery where very little information exists about it online, this is a time when disinformation flourishes and we see that, especially actors that are seeking to monetize disinformation, will try to fill those information voids.

I think we need to see tech platforms doing more to elevate and label and classify science information and science producers so that algorithms can better identify those. But I think that we also need to recognize that, you know, there are topics like climate change, like vaccinations, that are highly polarized and politicized, and scientists have to understand that and try to adapt to that dynamic.

Marnie Chesterton: 23:20

There’s an old adage that lies travel faster than the truth. So rather than waiting for misinformation to spread before debunking it, if possible, we should take action before the damage is done.

Guy Berger: 23:34

If scientists are looking ahead and seeing how a tsunami, global warming, manifestation, whatever is going to happen, and they anticipate what kinds of lies, misconceptions, falsehoods, conspiracies could arise about that, and if they have knowledge, it is possible for them to jump in before these reach scale. So not only debunking what’s wrong, but prebunking. And prebunking is to really pull the carpet away from anti-science, and it would be such a valuable thing if more scientists could be involved in the prebunking business.

Marnie Chesterton: 24:19

Guy Berger worked at UNESCO for a decade promoting freedom of expression for journalists, scientists and artists. He warns that in our efforts to combat disinformation, we have to be wary of going too far. Like, for example, during the COVID-19 pandemic, when some countries passed laws that made it possible to prosecute people for spreading false information.

Guy Berger: 24:44

My biggest concern with these so-called fake news laws is that it implies that everything can be true or false. And of course, we know from science that is not the case. There’s a big grey area in between and there there’s a lot that’s not yet known, and this only emerges over time. And the problem with beginning to criminalize what may be false, it may be malicious falsehoods, it may be innocent falsehoods, but by criminalizing it, you really infringe on freedom of expression and it really lends itself to abuse. So you saw it during the pandemic, for example, journalists being jailed for fake news, but actually what they had been reporting was corruption in the COVID procurement process. And so this is something that I think science has got a great role to play to help policy makers get it right.

Marnie Chesterton: 25:41

In light of these issues, it’s vital that scientists and journalists can work better together to report on some of the most important stories of our time. But, of course, this isn’t always easy, especially in the global south.

Guy Berger: 25:55

We know that science has huge impact in the global south, you know, malaria, pollution from mining, youth migration. The science about these phenomena is so relevant that there should be potential for news, science news, to fly in the south. Although I’d say worldwide scientists tend to mistrust journalists because journalists oversimplify, they sensationalize. But on the journalists’ side, they also don’t see scientists as lucrative sources for stories. And because it’s complex, it takes time for a journalist to convert scientific information into a story when time is very much a matter of money, and especially in the global south where journalists are under huge pressure.

And so I think the takeaway here is that a lot is needed on both sides to build relationships in the south. And there can be dialogue about, for example, trying to mainstream science literacy across journalists who are not science specialists and not to write each other off as a lost cause.

Marnie Chesterton: 26:59

Disinformation, science illiteracy, political polarization. These are big themes in twenty-first century science communication. But the fallout is often felt by individual scientists. And so we must also consider how those individuals are impacted by the intense scrutiny and abuse they can experience online.

Courtney C. Radsch: 27:22

So one of the challenges of being a scientist today is that you do have to communicate in the public sphere, and that can turn you into a public figure, voluntarily or not. And one of the issues is that scientists are facing online harassment, especially women scientists, scientists who don’t fit the mould or who are from marginalized communities or have any sort of intersectional identities. And what this means is that, you know, when they publish their paper or they tweet about how excited they are, it often leads to a barrage of trolling and it can lead to self-censorship.

So part of addressing science communication in the twenty-first century means figuring out how to grapple with online harassment, and it means taking precautions like digital hygiene and digital security to make sure that when you are communicating, you are as safe as you can keep yourself.

Marnie Chesterton: 28:15

So what does all of this mean for scientists who want to do a better job of talking about their research and what it means for society? Courtney has some advice.

Courtney C. Radsch: 28:26

Scientists need to have social media skills. They need to understand how to, you know, tweet thread their latest paper, how to update Wikipedia, how to make a video about it or get on a podcast.

I would also add, I think that scientists have a responsibility to communicate better with policymakers, but I don’t think that it’s fair to expect the individual scientists to do it all by themselves. So it’s very important that we work in communities and have the support of our institutions so that we can have a more informed public conversation about science.

Marnie Chesterton: 29:07

That’s it for this episode on freedom and responsibility in science from the International Science Council. The ISC has released a discussion paper on these issues. You can find the paper and learn more about the ISC’s mission online at council.science/podcast.

Next time we’ll be looking at the role of the state, and we’ll be looking at the impact of conflict and collaboration on science.



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