By CANDACE FIELDS,
Bahamian PhD Student,
DID you know that for more than a year most scientific research in The Bahamas has all but stopped because of one Government department?
Our country is an unparalleled living laboratory the likes of which cannot be matched anywhere around the globe. Alongside Bahamian researchers, we draw in world class scientists to conduct research and to foster local leaders. Renowned institutions and their funders have become significant investors in our economy through understanding and promoting the health of our natural resources and in training Bahamians like me to join their ranks.
With a tourism economy focused almost entirely on our natural wonders, we must collaborate globally to conduct the necessary research to understand, protect and manage our most valued asset in the face of a rapidly changing planet.
I am a Bahamian scientist and am currently a PhD student at Florida International University. My love of marine science was fostered by the natural beauty of my country. My dream of becoming a marine biologist was made possible by the experiences I had studying at local institutions and working with international partners. I am speaking out today as a voice for Bahamian scientists. Our ability to perform research in our own country has been completely disrupted, delayed, or outright cancelled by our own Government’s bureaucrats and with no logical explanation.
While The Bahamas made a strong showing at COP26 in Glasgow toward addressing the climate crisis, this is another crisis being self-imposed here at home – and well under the public radar. In 2021 the Government passed the Biological Resources and Traditional Knowledge Act which is meant to implement an important concept called “Access & Benefit Sharing” (ABS) for all scientists working in our country. As the name indicates, ABS is meant to help countries capture value when their natural resources are commercialized through product development. This is important, and I support it strongly. But it is not meant to stop basic research science for the sake of public understanding and policymaking. In fact, the ABS law’s self-stated intention is to promote conservation of biological diversity and the sustainable use of our natural resources.
My PhD research focuses on sharks in The Bahamas. In 1993, The Bahamas took its first step toward conserving shark populations by instituting a ban on commercial long-lining. In 2011 we then demonstrated global leadership by declaring a country-wide shark sanctuary. Every ten years, the sanctuary law mandates an impact assessment. I am part of a project to do this work. Yet for reasons surpassing understanding, receiving a simple permit to carry out this government-mandated research seems impossible.
With the new Cabinet’s focus on economic development, I hope the routine matter of processing permits will no longer be a quagmire. Without approving science permits, aspects of Government process, policy making and even economic development ventures are grinding to a halt. For example, many academic researchers work at the request of the Fisheries Department to carry out the data collection needed to further develop our sustainable fisheries and achieve to-market certifications. This now cannot happen without basic scientific research. What’s particularly frustrating to a student like me is that it seems like my own Government doesn’t understand that my research is meant for the public good. Instead, I’m being treated like some big pharma company seeking to steal my own country’s natural resources.
If this permit roadblock is not immediately changed, local biographies like mine will soon no longer be written. The capacity to work with other scientists who bolster Bahamian researchers will disappear as many experts are forced to go to other countries where public interest research is welcomed and appreciated. All because of one department that will not issue permits. This is not right and must change.
The research permit process should be streamlined and the true intent of the Access & Benefit Sharing law be followed: to protect our country against commercial theft, not to protect us from ourselves. I want to do research here – we must do research here to preserve our economy and adapt to global warming. I, along with the Bahamian scientific community, are calling on Government to dramatically reform this new but broken permit system. The black box, closed door permit process most of us are facing today must go.
We have already lost many international partners.
Soon we will lose local talent. Eventually we will lose the ability to understand and protect our environment for generations to come.