Science: Lost in translation.

Academia is rife with opinions and cultural norms. Often they come across as best practices. This is because that is the way things are done and therefore that is how those in leadership learned to do them, the way they teach their academic offspring and so it is perpetuated.

Historically, wealthy, white, English speaking men have conducted science. This remains the status quo in science leadership. Interestingly, it continues even in places where the population does not fit this demographic.

Of particular interest to me is the Insular Caribbean. Island nations surrounding the Caribbean sea and nearby waters have diverse histories of colonization, slavery, emancipation and development. Along with these dynamic histories comes language diversity not seen in many other regions. People in the Insular Caribbean speak English, French, Spanish, Esperanto, various native languages and creole or dialectic mixes of these languages. Economic diversity also continues to develop and change in these countries. Local science and leadership continues to develop.

Unfortunately, North American Academia (NAA), continues to assume the role of science leadership, especially in countries labeled as third world or developing nations. Evidence of this is seen in various ways.

1. Voice: Scientific literature regarding these countries is published primarily in English, in North American Journals. The host country and its people do not have the primary voice describing its environment, archaeology, etc.

2. Access: The local host country institutions including government agencies, schools and universities, do not have access to the publications regarding their environment as portrayed in the global arena for their students or they do not have complete, accurate translations.

3. Ownership: Visiting researchers do not involve local people in significant discussion of scientific questions or conservation goals that are of importance to the country or region. Goals are instead based on NAA targets, justifications and funding.

4. Agency: Local participants in research are relegated to logistic work or manual labor not trained in the scientific methods or skills necessary to assume leadership roles. Technical scientific work is reserved for NAA students (undergraduate volunteers or interns). The excuse is often that locals do not have the necessary education to provide the needed support or the needed personnel could not be sourced locally.

5. Accuracy: study of human systems and their impacts on the environment in the absence of cultural or language competence is inherently incomplete. Disagreements and inconsistencies continue to arise because of incomplete understandings of the human systems.

While there are many avenues through which this can be addressed, I feel language is essential.


When a non-native language speaker conducts science in a host country, all efforts should be made to disseminate that research to the local people in their language. This starts at the intent stage and continues beyond publication to application and perhaps reevaluation. When classes/researchers visit study abroad locations, native students should be involved to both provide cultural contexts within discussions, reduce exoticism of local people and help North American Students achieve higher cultural competency. Where possible, scientists and educators should make themselves competent in the language and cultural norms of their host countries.


Having scientific literature published in the host country language, including dialects means that the people and regions can transition from being the object (spoken of) to the agent (speaker), the potential for education at multiple levels increases, cooperative and mutually beneficial science becomes feasible and science becomes participatory, which may also reduce some costs for all involved and improve the overall quality and diversity of scientific research.


By involving local students, this also improves the diversity of thought. NAA has a naturally NAA point of view. A primarily individualistic, atheist, capitalist society and its goals, justifications etc. will find translation (both linguistic and cultural) necessary to achieve its goals in a socialist, religious society. Not only are the values different, but the way in which they are described via language etc. may be even more divergent. Sometimes only a native person can describe/translate these elements of the culture accurately.

Do you have other solutions?

Have you seen NAA implement science well in your country or location?

below are links to other articles on this phenomenon.