Internationalisation dynamics in contemporary South American life sciences: the case of zebrafish
Liscovsky Barrera, Rodrigo
We tend to assume that science is inherently international. Geographical boundaries are not a matter of concern in science, and when they do – e.g. due to the rise of nationalist or populist movements – they are thought to constitute a threat to the essence of the scientific enterprise; namely, the global mobility of ideas, knowledge and researchers. Quite recently, we also started to consider that research could become ‘more international’ under the assumption that in doing so it becomes better, i.e. more collaborative, innovative, dynamic, and of greater quality. Such a positive conceptualisation of internationalisation, however, rests on interpretations coming almost exclusively from the Global North that systematically ignore power dynamics in scientific practice and that regard scientific internationalisation as an unproblematic transformative process and as a desired outcome. In Science and Technology Studies (STS), social research on model organisms is perhaps the clearest example of the influence of the dominant vision of internationalisation. This body of literature tends to describe model organism science and their research communities as uniform and harmonious international ecosystems governed by a strong collaborative ethos of sharing specimens, knowledge and resources. But beyond these unproblematic descriptions, how does internationalisation actually transform research on life? To what extent do the power dynamics of internationalisation intervene in contemporary practices of knowledge production and diffusion in this field of research? This thesis revisits the dynamics and practices of scientific internationalisation in contemporary science from the perspective of South American life sciences. It takes the zebrafish (Danio rerio), a small tropic freshwater fish, originally from the Ganges region in India and quite popular in pet shops, as a case study of how complex dynamics of internationalisation intervene in science. While zebrafish research has experienced a remarkable growth in recent years at the global scale, in South America its growth has been unprecedented, allowing average laboratories, which often operate with small budgets and with less well-developed science infrastructures, to conduct world-class research. My approach is based on a consideration of internationalisation as a conceptual model of change. I consider internationalisation to be a process essentially marked by tensions in the spatial, cognitive and evaluative dimensions of scientific practice. These tensions, I claim, are not just a key feature of internationalisation, but also aspects of a conceptual opposition that is geared towards explaining how change comes about in science. By studying the dynamics of internationalisation, I seek to understand various transformations of zebrafish research: from its construction as a research artefact to its diffusion across geographical boundaries. My focus on South America, on the other hand, helps me to understand the complexity of such dynamics beyond the lenses of the dominant discourse of internationalisation that prevails in the STS literature on model organisms. I use mixed-methods (i.e. semi-structured interviews, document analysis, bibliometrics and social network analysis) to observe and interpret transformations of internationalisation at different scales and levels. My analysis suggests first, that internationalisation played an important role in the construction of the zebrafish as a model organism and that, in the infrastructures and practices of resource exchange that sustain the scientific value of the organism internationally, dynamics of asymmetry and empowerment problematise the collaborative ethos of this community. Second, I found that collaborative networks – measured through co-authorships – also played an important role in the diffusion of zebrafish as a model organism in South America. However, I did not find a clear indication of international dependency in the diffusion of zebrafish, explained by a geographical concentration of scientific expertise in the zebrafish collaboration network. Rather than exposing peripheral researchers to novel ideas, networks of international collaboration seem to be more related to access to privileged material infrastructures resulting from the social organisation of scientific labour worldwide. Lastly, by examining practices of biological data curation and researchers’ international mobility trajectories, I describe how dynamics of internationalisation shape the notion of research excellence in model organism science. In this case, I found mobility trajectories to play a key role in boosting researchers’ contributions to the community’s database, especially among researchers from peripheral communities like South America. Overall, while these findings show the value of considering internationalisation as a conceptual model of change in science, more research is needed on the intervention of complex dynamics of internationalisation in other cases and fields of research.