Exploitative western scientists in foreign countries

I am still trying to get the last chapter of my PhD published, two years after graduating, and I have no idea if this is an average or super-long delay.

I like the paper, though, at least the form it’s finally taking. It’s about the marshes in southern Iraq. Back in 2003, these marshes were in the news a lot connected to the invasion of Iraq by the US. There’s a lot of ethnic cleansing-related destruction of these marshes, and when the Iraqi government fell in 2003, they were able to be studied again in full force.

At least some foreign scientists went to Iraq. I don’t know the backstory, but a professor named Curtis Richardson at Duke University was one of them. Duke University is right here in North Carolina. I followed their studies of the marshes as far back as 2006, I think, which was when they were publishing all their papers, and I always thought — oh, wow, North Carolina got in on the act all the way in Iraq.

And when I became a PhD student, with a focus on water resources and wetlands in Iraq, I ended up reading these research papers written by Richardson. One of them was published in Science, which along with Nature, is the most prestigious science journal out there (they also have the most original name!)

But I really think there is something icky and wrong about this whole process. For example, Curtis Richardson had co-authors on these papers — in particular, someone named Najah Hussain, a researcher in Iraq. I don’t understand why Najah Hussain was not the lead author on these papers — why was it Richardson? Like, did the lead name have to be a western scientist, otherwise Science and all the other journals wouldn’t have bothered? Or maybe the name didn’t have to be a western name, but the scientist had to be at a western institution, like Duke University, and not at the University of Basra in Iraq (where Najah Hussain worked).

Between me and you, there’s nothing all that much new in the papers that Richardson took lead authorship for. They pretty much just summarized the history of the marshes, and then looked at how the marshes had recovered after the war (which really is just a matter of looking at satellite images). I can go back and check the careful notes I took about these papers, but there was really nothing groundbreaking in them. But still, Richardson got to swoop in and take the lead authorship for them.

Well, that’s great, he got tons of citations and prestige from his work. But, is this not entirely one of those smoke and mirrors exercise? What did Richardson really do? Now, 17 years later, it’s still the scientists in Iraq who are focused on this issue, while Richardson has moved on to other prestigious works. Did he really help them in anyway? And if he did help, then that’s that — he helped. So why was he the lead author? (Not to mention all the media interviews and conference speeches he probably got to give about it, too).

It’s not all that different from Trump and his billions, that do or don’t exist, and the whole applause for success based on really on nothing at all. Is there any real good that a lot of these western scientists do when they go to foreign countries, and if there is, is the praise and prestige they get in proportion to what they actually do? I’m sure that sometimes it is — but I think way more often, these scientists are puffed up for very little at all.

Which just goes to show scientists, for all they often try to pretend to be loftier and above the illogical impulses of the lower-class, non-scientist masses, are just the same as everyone else.


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