Leave “Parachute Science” Behind When Jumping Into Global Microbiome Research


Awareness is growing, but still today researchers from high-income countries sometimes conduct research that relies on analyzing samples collected in low-income countries without affording any benefit to local scientists or community. This practice of “dropping in” on another country to take whatever is needed to further research, termed “parachute science,” can apply to any scientific field.

Human microbiome research is now going global. Scientists are characterizing the biodiversity of human gut microbes by sampling stool from individuals from diverse populations worldwide. We, at the Global Microbiome Conservancy, are part of this effort.

It is an ethical imperative to engage populations from low-income countries in microbiome research. Decades of microbiology research has mainly focused on populations living in urban areas of Europe and North America, creating a strong disparity in our knowledge of the human microbiome biased towards industrialised populations. Yet the fastest rates of growth of many microbiome-related diseases such as Inflammatory Bowel Disease, autoimmune disease, and diabetes, are occurring in non-industrialized countries. This knowledge imbalance will further exacerbate healthcare inequities: we know so little about the microbiome of global populations that any microbiome-based or traditional small molecule therapeutic being currently developed in industrialized nations may not be efficacious worldwide. 

On the other hand, it is equally unethical to travel through a country to collect and remove samples if local scientists are left out of the picture and not involved in the project as co-investigators or collaborators. Many nations, quite rightfully, have laws to prevent this happening but these are often flouted. Scientists in the fields of human genomics and epidemiology have already identified this as an important issue and are increasingly building partnerships with local scientists that lead to more collaborative, and truly global research projects. The microbiome field is still young. As it expands and matures, we need to learn from these early experiments the best practices to promote ethical scientific progress and sharing of biomedical advances, at both local and global scales. 

Doing science outside wealthy universities and institutes often implies overcoming numerous obstacles. Access to sample processing equipment, next generation sequencing technology, reliable power and computational infrastructures, and recent scientific publications is often difficult. This limits the progress of research and the development of the local scientific communities. Also, as well intentioned as it might be, supporting researchers by donating or purchasing material and equipment do not usually empower local scientific teams in the long term as continuous access to reagents, maintenance of equipment, and trained personnel are often lacking.

In this context, building effective collaborations that span the whole research pipeline from sample collection, data generation and analysis, to authorship in international scientific journals, is essential. Publishing scientific papers, both as lead and contributing authors, empowers all collaborators, reinforcing their technical portfolio and their international reputation. This can translate into new collaborations, grants, and awards, and opportunities to actively design and lead research projects. Building expertise is also critical for aspects of our work that we, as researchers, often overlook: influencing local and international policies. We live in an era where government spending on research and development is both globally stagnating and locally limited for most of the low-income countries. To challenge this trend, a strong track record of scientific achievements and a solid international reputation are critical to be able to influence strategic decisions that determine scientific politics, and ultimately, the funding of science. 

Advertising research integrity and raising awareness about best ethical scientific practices is easy. Doing them in practice is more difficult. Anticipating and preventing unethical action is even more complicated. We must remain humble. We probably don’t do all things right, but we strongly commit to trying our best. Our hope is that the microbiome research community will adhere to these modern and ethical guidelines.

Tamrat Abebe
Addis Ababa University, Ethiopia

Eric Alm
Massachusetts Institute of Technology, USA

Aida Aadikh Badiane​
Cheikh Anta Diop University, Senegal

Awa Deme
Aristide Le Dantec Hospital, Senegal

Catherine Girard
Université de Montréal, Canada

Mathieu Groussin*
Massachusetts Institute of Technology, USA

Jeff Hooker
Chief Dull Knife College, USA

Fatimah Ibrahim
University of Malaya, Malaysia

Muhammad Imran
Quaid-i-Azam University, Pakistan

Teh Swe Jyan
University of Malaya, Malaysia

Jenni Lehtimäki
Finnish Environment institute, Finland

Varocha Mahachai
Thammasat University, Thailand

Katya Moniz
Massachusetts Institute of Technology, USA

Mustapha Mouallif
Université Hassan Ier, Morocco

Yvonne Nartey
Cape Coast Teaching Hospital, Ghana

Charles Onyekwere
Lagos State University College of Medicine, Nigeria

Adrián Pinto Tomás
Universidad de Costa Rica, Costa-Rica

Mathilde Poyet*
Massachusetts Institute of Technology, USA

John Rusine
National Reference Laboratory, Rwanda

Jesse Shapiro
Université de Montréal, Canada

Ainara Sistiaga
Massachusetts Institute of Technology, USA

Roger Summons
Massachusetts Institute of Technology, USA

Dr. Ratha-korn Vilaichone
Thammasat University, Thailand

Ramnik Xavier
Massachusetts General Hospital, USA

*Corresponding authors. Please address all correspondence to mpoyet@mit.edu and mgroussi@mit.edu.