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Research itineraries

The scientific method outside academia

Biologist Pedro Ferreira Develey continues his research by observing birds

Léo Ramos Chaves / Revista Pesquisa FAPESP

I am a nostalgic researcher. Between starting my undergraduate degree in 1988 and finishing my PhD, I spent 16 intense years at the University of São Paulo [USP]. Despite the intervals between my degrees, I always remained active in academic life. I built a long and strong relationship with this space for knowledge. Proof of this is in my predilection for teaching, my interest in sharing data and information—in the form of articles and/or lectures—and in my research supervision. I miss that dynamic. In my current professional life, there is little room for it.

After 18 years at the helm of the Brazilian Society for the Conservation of Birds, the academic world seems a distant memory. As executive director of the nongovernmental organization Save Brasil, I am responsible for a team of almost 40 people, raising funds for environmental conservation projects, as well as financial and administrative management. But I am certain that it has only been possible to direct this branch of BirdLife International, a global alliance in which Save Brasil participates, because I assimilated the scientific method during my university career.

I remember clearly the speech given by the director of USP’s Institute of Biosciences to new graduates during the graduation ceremony: “Use the scientific method in other aspects of your life, not just in academia.” These words continue to resonate in my life, solidifying the way I work. At Save Brasil, we always seek to define clear objectives in our projects, as well as suitable methods, quantitative and qualitative indicators, and controls for variables. This approach helps a lot when evaluating projects and reporting to funders. In this sense, I am a dissident—someone who has remained a researcher despite being immersed in the voluntary sector, whose demands sometimes limit the possibilities of scientific investigation.

I understand that scientists relate more to the way they see the world than necessarily to the professional space where they work. My worldview is therefore confrontational, demanding of data, does not submit to untested ideas, and is rigorous in statistical analyses. The value I place on the scientific method makes my work at the NGO much more stable, even if it makes facing challenges more complex. Here is an example: soon after I started at Save Brasil, we were visited by an external evaluator because of a large project we were working on that was funded by the European Union. She immediately asked me about my experience as a manager. I was not offended by the question and told her that although I had no management training, my academic career, especially at the graduate level, taught me discipline and logical thinking. My day-to-day routine involved the use of many tools that I was familiar with from my time at USP—I work with statistical analysis, project accountability, and process and deadline controls.

Personal ArchiveThe bellbird, known as the voice of the Atlantic ForestPersonal Archive

BirdLife emerged in the academic/scientific environment and still has a research center staffed by renowned ornithologists. In addition to promoting global research and public policies for the preservation of birds and the environment, the organization also produces a lot of scientific knowledge. It recently released the report “State of the World’s Birds 2022.” This year’s version aims not only to gather research results from within the organization and elsewhere, but also to propose solutions and above all, to disseminate science with the aim of impacting society.

As part of this effort to disseminate science, when two articles I wrote last year were published in English, we translated them into Portuguese for the organization’s website and the press. My team continuously seeks to access scientific literature on birds. Just as my teachers did for me, I try to motivate them to maintain a certain level of discipline when it comes to reading. I consider academic work and its diffusion essential. Science underpins everything we do at Save Brasil. I always strive to promote this modus operandi, which I learned from BirdLife.

I entered the voluntary sector at the end of my PhD, having been invited by a friend, an IB-USP veteran. Since we had academic affinities and worked in the same area of research, we kept in touch over the years, despite living in different countries. At a meeting in the United States in 1998, while we were catching up, she raised the possibility of me joining the institution where she worked. A few years later, I was offered the opportunity to help implement the BirdLife program in Brazil. Despite being unsure, I took the chance.

My professional plans were academic. I wanted to continue researching my doctoral thesis, in which I analyzed how different characteristics affected bird diversity in the Atlantic Forest. I wanted to publish more articles about my studies, but I was not able to do so. However, I am proud to have written Guia de campo – Aves da Grande São Paulo (Field guide: The birds of Greater São Paulo) in 2004, in collaboration with the photographer Edson Endrigo. It has already sold 12,000 copies and has become a reference for the birdwatching community. This type of field guide is quite common these days—they are even available online and via mobile apps.

Personal ArchiveGuianan cock-of-the-rockPersonal Archive

Near the end of my PhD, I considered starting a postdoctoral project. I saw research and teaching as the only possible option for someone on the path I was taking. After defending my thesis, I stayed close to USP, actively participating in a series of activities. At the same time, I received the invitation to work at BirdLife. It was 2004, I had just completed my PhD and I had no professional experience outside the university environment, but I was willing to start a new chapter. After all, it was an internationally recognized environmental organization closely related to my academic interests.

Despite not being a university professor, I was president of the Brazilian Society of Ornithology between 2016 and 2017. I have been in a dissident position in this largely academic space. Although there was respect for my management skills, there was occasionally a certain distance on the part of some of my associates. These issues, however, were refuted by the fact that I was effectively a researcher with a master’s degree and PhD.

I keep circulating through these spaces because I still contribute to the production of knowledge. I am happy because I believe I have earned recognition from the academic community itself, and I am seen as someone who can share science even if I am outside the university. Another really positive movement in this sense is linked to birdwatchers, who are part of a group identified as belonging to “collaborative science.” These are people, sometimes laypeople, who dedicate themselves to observing, cataloguing, and photographing birds. Currently, they represent a great number: at around 50,000 spread across Brazil. This means that we have thousands of collaborators at the service of science gathering a huge and important body of documented bird observations.

At Save Brasil, we strongly believe in the active and engaged participation of these observers. We encourage lay participation, including through training programs, education, and birdwatching events. We understand that the work of observers can actually break the academic bubble by truly collaborating with the production of knowledge. As a consequence, what the entire scientific community wants, or should want, is achieved: the true integration of society with academia. This success has been possible thanks to the birds. I see, through them, the ability to save the planet.