Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The data is not enough

As the Maru builds an ever increasing database of information on the cichlids and environmental aspects of Lake Malawi I keep thinking back to Bruno Latour’s book “Science in Action.” In it he talks about the distinction between mere information and science and the process by which the former is translated into the later.  A couple of years ago when I first read the book I found it pretty theoretically compelling but my personal experience doing “hard” science was fairly limited.  For a “soft” social scientist like me much of what Latour argued for didn’t seem too radical.  But for “hard” scientists, the arguments of Science and Technology Studies (STS) proponents like Latour have always been a much tougher sell.  Hard scientists have been uncomfortable with how STS researchers, to their minds, have been cluttering the science-making process with too much social and historical context and contingency. A scientist’s job, they argue, is to discover universal truths, not ones tied to particular social and historical contexts and so paying attention to such things is unnecessary and even dangerous to the extent that it may render suspect the objectivity of scientific findings amongst non-experts.  Think about the controversies over climate change or evolution. 
However the more hard science we do at the Maru the more I think that those STS guys have been on to something for awhile now and that the stories of the social and historical contexts within which scientific work is being done do indeed deserve to be told.  On this blog I have with varying levels of enthusiasm been trying to do just that by talking about our journey at the Maru as a young Research Center trying to gain knowledge and credibility on the shores of Lake Malawi. 

For about the past eight months we have been engaged primarily in two research projects, Weather and Water Quality Monitoring and Underwater Population and Biodiversity Surveys.  We’ve collected a lot of data points, some of which I have shared on this blog.  It’s been a lot of interesting fun and I believe in the integrity of the methods we have used to collect the data.  However in many ways I am learning that data collection is the easiest part of the whole science-making process.  Getting our data recognized as actual science internationally and as something important locally is going to be a much longer and harder slog; one that is full of social networking, credibility-proving, shameless self-promotion, and institutional partnership building.  We will also have to be attune to the current cultural and political events occurring in various social networks both in Malawi and abroad such as cichlid ichthyologists, cichlid hobbyist forums, Malawian fisheries department civil servants, academics, fishers, and NGOs.   

And so far I fear that the Maru is having a harder time in this “Stage 2” of the science-making process.  Certainly it isn’t from a lack of trying.  We have sent out dozens of “cold-call” emails to prominent cichlid ichthyologists, Lake Malawi limnologists, and others who have worked on Lake Malawi, but have received very little response.  To those who have responded I thank.      

We have also applied for a grant to train up some students from Mzuzu University in underwater observation techniques and cichlid fish identification.  It was an interesting process but I’m not optimistic.  We will know in July.

We have also signed a formal MOU with the fisheries department at Mzuzu University and are hoping to receive a few of their students as interns to do some field research.

We are also working with another NGO called Ripple Africa on starting up a Fisheries Conservation Project.  In conjunction with the Malawian Fisheries Department and local Beach Village Committees (BVCs) we are trying to implement a more effective management system in Nkhata Bay District.  Ripple is handling the community organizing and legal aspects of the project and the Maru is setting up the monitoring and evaluation system meant to see what impact, if any, the new community-based regulatory regime is having.

And finally we are inviting international volunteers and interns to research with us.  Currently we have one student from Amsterdam University doing research on soil erosion.  Hopefully many more students come and through them the Maru will be able to build institutional relationships with their respective universities.

But frankly right now these efforts seem rather tenuous and even a little tedious.  The naïve side of me wants to cry out “Isn’t the data enough?” while the STS side of me knows that nothing lives in a vacuum, not even science.  If a tree falls in a scientific forest without anyone to hear it, it falls very silently.