Opinion

Doing Better Science by Including Local Researchers and Communities

(The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Al-Fanar Media).

I’m half Palestinian. My father is from Jerusalem where he has been living there and my family and ancestors for over 500 years. So I’m the daughter of a refugee. And I’m half Syrian. My mother is from Aleppo. But I live in Jordan, I’m a Jordan citizen, and I have a Jordan passport.

I’m not alone. This is the story of all people who live in the Levant, a product of colonization and artificial divisions dividing the different parts of the Levant area. I’m saying this to share that all the research I do is within Jordan and the surrounding region. I am a scientist and am very steeped in the local area.

And that’s very important to do better science that has an impact, which is our objective, as scientists to serve humanity. And we need this kind of approach, especially today in the 21st century, so that we can solve the challenges that we face and achieve the sustainable development goals to create a better life for humanity and the future of our children.

In this essay, I would like to share a number of lessons and recommendations from my personal experience and journey, and give examples that illustrate some of these lessons learned. And I’m going to start in a logical manner by sharing that, as a scientist, you first create a team of researchers to address a particular issue.

Anyone who wants to do science who is not from that location or region being studied must seek out scientists who are, whether they find them locally or among scientists from there who are now in diaspora.

I emphasize the importance of creating a team that comes from multiple disciplines, because most problems are wickedly huge and difficult to solve. They’re big, and they need expertise from different perspectives and different backgrounds. 

Incorporating Local Expertise

We also need diversity and to include people from different perspectives and different cultures for two main reasons: one, so that they will shed a new light, a new perspective on the big questions, and help us better answer them, because we see them from different positions. But more importantly, because the team has to incorporate local scientists within the locality where that research is going to happen.

If the research is going to be about Jordan and Syria and Palestinians, it has to include scientists who come from that background, have grown up in that culture and context, so that they are better able to understand the context of the study, analyse it, and interrogate it.

So my first recommendation is that anyone who wants to do science who is not from that location or that region must seek out scientists who are, whether they find them locally or, if this is like a war zone, among scientists from there who are now in diaspora. Seek them out, because they do exist. Every country has scientists in diaspora, and incorporating their expertise is very, very important to do better science.

When you create a team, it’s important because they not only help you for the cultural context, understanding the problem and the challenge, they also help gain buy-in from the local community, so that you can make sure that you have everyone on board, and you don’t have attrition. Creating this diverse team is not just checking a box. You really want each team member to be equal at the table, listening to everybody, talking to everybody, and having a horizontal kind of leadership.

The initial research question may, in the mind of the scientist coming from outside the region, make sense and seem important. However, in the context of the local region, it may not be relevant at all.

There is also the challenge of language, because if you’re talking to local scientists, they may not have the same command of language: English, let’s say. If the language of science is in English, the onus should not be on the local scientists to find somebody to help the person coming from outside the region explain what they have. The onus should be on the person coming from outside the region to bring in interpreters to listen to what the local person is saying in their local language.

So these are very important points that we must keep in consideration.

Localising the Research Question

This leads us to the second next step, which is the research question: how to develop the research question with the team, taking into consideration that local context. The initial research question may, in the mind of the scientist coming from outside the region, make sense and seem important. However, in the context of the local region, it may not be relevant at all. The only way to know that is by talking and working with local scientists and scholars.

For example, Unicef once asked a research team I was part of to conduct a study on how much children in Jordan wanted to go to school. That makes sense, in general. Unicef works worldwide, and the problem of children being out of school is a concern. So the assumption was that the issue would be the same in Jordan.

So we complied. But we didn’t think it through. When we did the research, we found out that the intervention under study did not increase children’s desire to go to school, because at baseline, these children already wanted to go to school. Jordan has a high rate of children entering school. The ethos is that everybody loves school, and so on. So the research question was irrelevant in the local context.

You can imagine what could have been saved in money, time and effort, if we had asked a different question.

Using Locally Appropriate Tools

Once we have figured out the proper research question, we come to the next step, which is, what are the tools we want to use to test that question, the hypothesis we have put forward. We want to make sure that these tools are valid, relevant, and applicable to the local community.

To break that down, let’s take a very common research tool, the survey, as an example.

We need to make sure, most of the time, that our survey instrument is appropriate for the local community.

Many of the survey instruments that are out there for measuring different characteristics or traits are actually designed, developed and validated in the West. Many of these Western-design tools are parachuted in to be implemented among another different local community.

Many of the survey instruments that are out there for measuring different characteristics or traits are actually designed, developed and validated in the West. And although people are much more aware of this issue today than in the past, still many of these Western-design tools are parachuted in to be implemented among another different local community.

Herein lie multiple problems and challenges. One is the context of the survey questions. Are they relevant to the local community? Do they take local community practices into consideration? Are they even asking the right questions?

There is also the problem of translating survey questions into the local language. It shouldn’t be just a literal translation. Does a term that was used in the translation really make sense? What does it mean in the local mind-set, and from the worldview of the local people, versus that of the people who designed the survey?

And then we must ask, what is it that we’re measuring? For example, in another research collaboration, we wanted to understand how fathers integrate with their children and what makes a good father. The survey instrument came from a partner scientist asking, do fathers play with and read to their children? Those are traits that exemplify a good father or a sign that the father has a good relationship with his child. 

Well, of course, if you asked that question within the Jordanian context, you would find that fathers do not read to their children. So the conclusion based on rigorous, randomized, controlled trial research would be that fathers in Jordan don’t read to their children, hence they are really not good fathers. And that finding becomes a policy paper and decisions are made, assumptions are made, conclusions are made, and stereotyping occurs. In reality, what we did is we asked the parents to keep a diary of what they did with their children for a whole week, and then went in and started pulling out those questions of what makes a good father in the cultural context.

So fathers take their kids to play football, fathers take their kids to eat ice cream, fathers take their kids to the mosque. These are the ways Jordanian fathers interact with their children. But those weren’t the questions in the original survey, so it’s like things got lost in translation, or were on two different wavelengths that never interact. It’s like you’re in two different worlds. And that’s very dangerous. It’s scary, actually, for all the reasons I said before.

So it’s very important to pay attention to the local context. If you’re a scientist coming from outside the local area, not even knowing what you don’t know, you need to sit with your team and talk about these issues and interrogate your assumptions.

And here the onus is not only on Western scientists coming from abroad, but also on the local scientists to have the courage to speak up and say what they think, and to have the feeling of being in a safe space where they can say what they think, and have an opinion. I’m not a full professor or a senior person, but I am the more knowledgeable of my community and my local context. So it’s very important to encourage the local scientists to speak up and have a voice.

Biomarkers and Other Tools

Surveys are one way of measuring behavior. But as a biologist, I’m always skeptical of surveys. We want to go under the skin, right? Your body doesn’t lie. So we want to look at biomarkers, for example, hormones or immune system markers, of how the body responds to stress and anxiety.

And of course, when you talk about biomarkers, you raise some important questions. How are you going to take blood from local communities, or, for that matter, perform any kind of invasive procedure to obtain biological samples? And again, here comes the importance of local context, of building local community trust, to have greater participation and less attrition in the study.

I went to the local community and I said, I’m half Syrian. I’m a Palestinian. I’m a Jordanian. I said, hey, guys, we’re going to evaluate this intervention. We want to make sure that it works, and if it doesn’t work, we want to advise how it should be done better.

Here is an example of how we were able to do that in one research project. I was a co-lead with with Catherine Panter-Brick of Yale University of a study to evaluate the impact of an intervention run by Mercy Corps that aimed to increase psychological resilience among Syrian refugees in Jordan. The research was to compare adolescents in the Jordanian host community with Syrian refugee adolescents who were involved in an intervention over eight weeks.

One of the study methods, other than doing surveys, was to evaluate biomarkers as indicators of stress levels. Mercy Corps, as the implementer of the intervention, was reluctant to use biomarkers because they were afraid of being perceived by the local community or the refugee community as taking advantage of them.

I understand where that reluctance comes from, from Mercy Corps’ perspective. But to me it speaks to that feeling of not that we are one community, that we are coming in to do something with them as a transaction.

So I said, well to do good science, Mercy Corps, as the implementer of the intervention, should not be involved in the study. And we as a neutral party, are scientists coming in to make the evaluation, and of course, I do not allow anybody who is outside the context locally to be involved in the research study on the ground.

I went to the local community. And I said, I’m half Syrian. I’m a Palestinian. I’m a Jordanian. I said, hey, guys, we’re going to evaluate this intervention. This international organization has come in to help, and it has brought its own intervention. Thank you. That’s really great, but we want to make sure that it works, and if it doesn’t work, we want to advise how it should be done better.

So I gave the local community, the parents and their children agency over implementing the intervention or not, and being part of the research study. That’s the approach that should be done, but it can only be done if you have a local person who’s from the community. And so it becomes a shared community action. I’m taking care of my family. We together are evaluating whether this intervention works or not. It’s not, I’m the outside one coming to study you.

That strategy is very, very important, and leads to success and better science. Not just that, you build scientific knowledge among the local communities. So these adolescents and their parents got to know all about biomarkers. Imagine the science, communication, and science information, and not just that they were involved in making it a success.

Finding a Noninvasive Procedure

For example, we wanted to measure cortisol levels as a biomarker for stress. I told the local parents and children, this is science. Science is about going under the skin, finding out what really shows whether you’re stressed or not, because people may not answer the survey properly. And so science tells us that cortisol levels can show what is really happening in our bodies.

So how do we get to the cortisol? Well, where you get a lot more cortisol is if you take blood. And we were having that discussion with the parents, because blood, that’s kind of, you know, squeamish.

All right, let’s see what else science tells us. Oh, we could take saliva. Yeah, but that’s messy, and you can’t eat for 30 minutes before the sample is taken, et cetera.

Again, what does science tell us, with all the advancement in technology and techniques? Oh, we can take this all from hair, because cortisol is deposited in your hair. In one centimeter of scalp hair, you have a history of the amount of cortisol in your body for a month.

So, what about hair? I asked. Is that easy? And they said, oh, of course we can do hair. And so they solved the problem of collecting biomarkers, even though Mercy Corps had told me it was impossible to do.  

And so the local response was fantastic. It was the community, solving the problem, bringing in the children, and we were able to do it, while at the same time raising science awareness and doing better science. We went back later and shared the results with the kids. So we went full circle. Very rarely do people go back to the community they actually studied and share their results with them. The research goes into academic journals or policy, and the kids, or the parents or the community don’t know what happened.

Benefits from Local Insights

Which brings me to the next point, which is the actual data collection. My team has to be local, so the Mercy Corps study I just mentioned was a Syrian-Jordanian study. We had Syrians and Jordanians conduct the data collection and administer the surveys, and the result of that was so important for doing better science.

When the Syrian and Jordanian research team members were evaluating these kids, doing surveys, collecting cortisol, and doing computer game cognition tasks in sessions that lasted over an hour, they noticed the kids would leave really distraught, because some of those trauma questionnaires were really really disturbing and caused them to remember the past. And the research team members came to me and said, “Can we help them leave the session by giving something positive?”

If it hadn’t been for local people who understood the context of what was happening, Syrians themselves doing the data collection, this thing wouldn’t have been brought up. So Catherine and I discussed it, and we said, Why don’t we measure resilience, which is a positive survey, and end with that? So we developed a whole resilience scale, and we made sure that it was adapted and relevant to the local context.

And we did it, and we produced the whole paper. And now it is an implementation paper, and that was fantastic because of that feedback from the team. Actually, the journal Science ran a special editorial about our work on resilience, and how we involved the community, and how we listened to the team. And, more importantly, about what we found about the intervention run by Mercy Corps. The intervention claimed to be reducing stress, and we showed that it did, as cortisol levels went down, but it also claimed to be increasing resilience, and we showed it did not.

And that was a big lesson, because the way the intervention had been designed to address resilience used a very Western approach that focused on the individual. In the Arab world, resilience is based on family and community, and the intervention did not take that into consideration. So this led to better programming. They upgraded and adapted the intervention to make sure that there was a component that included the families and the parents.

And you can imagine the kids when they knew that their feedback made a difference. They owned it. They evaluated the program, identified what worked and what didn’t, and were able to advise on how to do it better. And this makes for better development and a better future for these kids and their families.

The Goal: Doing Better Science

So these are some examples of how including local contexts, local scientists, and adopting such a strategy, makes for developing better traits and better characteristics, promoting well-being and flourishing, and building resilience within these communities. I want to emphasise that, not only were we able to answer a lot of science questions, we also did better science. We also came up with more questions, which is a hallmark of doing good science, and new insights that would only come because of us as a local team.

You can imagine the kids when they knew that their feedback made a difference. They owned it. They evaluated the program, identified what worked and what didn’t, and were able to advise on how to do it better. And this makes for better development and a better future for these kids and their families.

Most of the time people look at trauma and its impacts in a negative way. This is a Western kind of worldview. We said, Why can’t we say, how does the world we go through, the strife, or whatever—how do we survive? How do we thrive? Can we look at the other side of the coin? Can we measure how we positively deal with it?

And that was very strange and weird for the scientists coming from outside. How can you do that? they wondered. Aren’t you scared that it means that you’re celebrating trauma and war? And I said, no, because I’m a daughter of trauma, right? So I’m allowed to do that, and that’s the importance of the local team.

So now that’s how we’re approaching things and that’s how we present our work. I wrote about this in Nature Genetics, about this kind of approach, and how, because of that local context, we started asking questions that were impossible in other contexts. 

So, for example, now we’re running a study funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation looking at the epigenetic signature of intergenerational trauma. We’re looking at Syrian grandmothers exposed to trauma and how they were impacted, and asking whether there was an epigenetic signature, and whether it was transferred across generations to their granddaughters.

That research is only possible because we know the local context, the history. I’m Syrian, so I have the trust of the Syrian families, and we were able to design a very elegant experiment that only happens because of the local knowledge and comparing three cohorts: grandmothers exposed to trauma, their daughters, and their granddaughters.

In conclusion, I have tried in this essay to offer some insights, lessons and recommendations on how we can do better science, quality science that helps us answer and understand biology and mechanisms, but also helps us have an impact for humanity to solve problems confronting the 21st century, achieve the sustainable development goals, and build a better future for our children.

Rana Dajani is a professor of molecular cell biology at the Hashemite University, in Jordan.

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