Implementing The Biomedical Survey

As will become apparent in Chapter 3, the 1998 Biomedical Survey was successful far beyond everyone's expectations, allowing it to continue into 1999 and 2000 and resulting in data from 61 giant pandas. This included extensive cooperation from the China Conservation and Research Centre for the Giant Panda (of the Wolong Nature Reserve under the auspices of SFA). By 1998 and, in part, because of its already existing relationship with the Zoological Society of San Diego, the centre at Wolong had generously invited CBSG to include its giant pandas in the Survey.

During the three-year course of study, we adhered to six rules that may be useful for others interested in integrating scientific disciplines in a cross-cultural fashion to address species-based problems.

1. Be diverse in choosing team members. It would have been feasible to assemble a US-based team originating solely from a single institution. We chose an opposite approach that, although causing more logistical challenges, produced a compatible, eclectic team with varied expertise.

2. Be respectful of the host institution. The animals are the responsibility of the home institution and its director, curator and/or veterinarian. These individuals have the ultimate responsibility for making all final decisions, and visitors must remain deferential.

3. Write and sign a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with each host institution. To avoid every possible misunderstanding, it is wise to develop a MoU to ensure that everyone is comfortable with the approach to be used and expectations. These written agreements are a convention in Chinese culture (see Chapter 3 for an example).

4. Develop methods for learning from each other and across cultures. A 'missionary' approach will fail every time when working in a foreign culture. Our Biomedical Survey strategy was to work hand in hand across the two cultures. Progress was substantial because both teams learned to work side by side and to learn from each other.

5. Conduct all evaluations in-country with minimal export of biomaterials. There are growing issues worldwide with proprietary ownership of materials and data. From the onset, we agreed to avoid any controversy by insisting that all biomaterials be left and analysed within China. In some cases, this caused complexity, including the need to develop a molecular biology laboratory and provide intensive training (i.e. for sorting out giant panda paternity; see Chapter 10). Yet adhering to this rule helped build capacity within China (Chapter 22).

6. Share all results verbally and in writing immediately and identify the next step(s). From a home institution perspective, nothing must be quite so frustrating as experiencing an exciting opportunity to collect data from one of the world's rarest species and then be left without a written or verbal report by the visiting scientific team.

At the end of each Survey visit, at least half a day was reserved for questions, case discussions and identifying next steps for follow-up. Each institution also received a written report and a PowerPoint presentation on all findings from each evaluated individual.

On the surface, these guidelines appear to be common sense. However, too often they are easily ignored. We believe they were the foundation for our success.

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