Science with scruples

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McGill Reporter
January 10, 2002 - Volume 34 Number 08
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Science with scruples

Catherine Potvin believes scientific ethics belong in tropical forests. And so does spellchecking.

Photo The tropics in Panama where biologist Catherine Potvin pursues her research

Potvin is an associate professor of biology at McGill University, and co-editor with Margaret Kraenzel and Gilles Seutin of the recently published Protecting Biological Diversity: Roles and Responsibilities (McGill-Queen's University Press).

A plant physiological ecologist by training, she spends seven months of the year in Panama, working with both undergraduate and graduate programs focused on "cultural sensitivity as a fundamental tool to working efficiently in other countries," as well as leading her own research project involving carbon sequestration.

She has also worked closely with the Emberá tribe, researching traditional plant resource use and designing management plans for crucial species.

Potvin's jetsetting schedule is a far cry from when she first started teaching conservation biology at McGill in 1993. "I was talking about deforestation in the tropics and the loss of biodiversity," she confesses, "but I had never worked in the tropics before and had barely visited tropical areas."

A sabbatical was in order, so in 1994 Potvin travelled to Panama, visiting an Emberá village located near the Colombian border. The area is among the most species-rich ecosystems in the world, and one of the most critically endangered. Potvin set out "with the naive idea of asking the indigenous people, 'Why do you cut down the forest?'"

She laughs at the notion: "I was shocked."

The trip marked a major shift in Potvin's way of thinking, and in her career. "These people had nothing," she recalls. "It became obvious how absolutely absurd it would be to talk to them about why they cut the forest: they needed to live.

"I realized my viewpoint, as a northern academic, had to change in view of the reality of these people, for whom the forest was really a supermarket. I started working with the Emberá, trying to understand their relationship with the forest, and it changed my own brainshape little by little."

Potvin also realized that decades of unethical scientific intrusion had taken its toll on the people of the tropics, leaving them with "an acute sense of being robbed by northern scientists. They feel that we come, we take knowledge, we don't explain what we're doing, and we don't give anything back to them."

As chance would have it, Potvin took her three young children along on her trip, and was happily surprised to find that the Emberá villagers "identified me as a mother, not as an 'evil white male scientist.' I benefited from being able to establish my relationship at another level."

Potvin earned the Emberá's trust, and returned to McGill with a new focus. She "started knocking on all the doors I could imagine, looking for ethical guidelines concerning cultural sensitivity. To my great dismay, I found that these issues hadn't been formalized."

Potvin decided to fill the gap herself, and began working on Protecting Biological Diversity in 1996.

Potvin notes that the book isn't "a matter of doom and gloom, of saying that all northern scientists are rotten. The book is about helping to identify problems -- and solutions." Potvin believes the key to a long-term remedy lies in educating the scientists themselves, and in rethinking academia.

"The real problem may be the pressure of academia," she says, "and how it doesn't take into account the good we can do for communities. When we are evaluated for tenure, we're given 'bonus points' for publishing, but the time it takes to translate and put into lay terms the results of our research isn't considered. Our system doesn't put us in a position where it is advantageous to our careers to give back to the community, and self-motivation seems to be a bit weak for many of us.

"The book is saying, 'Keep publishing, but make a difference in the day-to-day life of people.'"

Potvin points to a chapter in Protecting Biological Diversity written by Rogelio Cansarí, an Emberá and recent McGill M.Sc. graduate. Cansarí interviewed Bonarge Pacheco, an Emberá chief, who recalled an American researcher known only as 'Cynthia.' The Emberá and Cynthia signed an agreement permitting her to conduct her research on the condition she share the results with the village.

Cynthia concluded her research in 1993, and has yet to return to the village. Potvin, however, secretly tracked her down, and offers a telling footnote: not only did Cynthia break her promise, but she published her results stateside -- and misspelled Bonarge Pacheco's name throughout.

"I show that example to my students," Potvin adds, "and tell them, 'This is what we don't want you to become.'"

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