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Genius Lies in the
Sense of Place

Editorial by Dr Dyhia Belhabib

I remember sitting in a room as a junior academic with massive aspirations to become a legend, one day. 

There were practitioners, fishers, and government officials. All were dressed for the occasion—a forum organized by a university whose name we are going to omit for the purpose of sparing some egotistical ideals. 

Somewhat of an academic myself, I started feeling like a stranger when I heard the epic sentence, “you’ve got to help us help you” – a Professor. The room was filled with knowledge and wisdom, oral history was being shared by elders, and precious anecdotal data was not spared. It all came from everyone but the academics in the room—us, the others.

I remember thinking, we spend years in research, we could not be further from the real world, somewhere at the top of the ivory tower, and yet we are here reducing precious information to “help us help you”. And there it was, doubt for the first time within me, how can my work help them? This is when I started moving away from the process of “othering” and became a “boundary spanner”. My work had to be embedded within the premise of reality, otherwise it was useless. I know this may sound offensive to some, but remember, I was thinking this way as an avid academic.

The condescending tone on the day of the forum certainly sparked outrage in me. Less than a year later, I found myself with fishers again, in a little village on the west coast of Africa. I stood there talking to my friend Karim, a fisher and businessman, and a local hero who bare-handedly stopped illegal industrial Chinese vessels from fleeing the scene of their crime until authorities arrived.

He said to me, “You always come here and ask us questions but we never see anything.”

I thought this was a little unfair because I took their concerns to heart, translated it to robust data and served it to the Minister of fisheries, like a dessert after lunch. After all, including the fishers’ concerns within my conclusions and adding pertinent figures enabled a major increase in fines and sanctions against illegal fishing.

“They come to take information and never return.” I started to hear this phrase a little too often, and most fishers I speak with carry and continue to be burdened by the same feeling of resentment.

I responded to Karim by asking, “Do you want to see the results of the research?”

He replied that he wanted to see posters presented to the villagers, and workshops conducted, like the Minister did every Friday night for fishers, when he would welcome any fisher who was interested in learning about conservation and make a themed slideshow. After that, fishers had the opportunity to talk with him in a casual manner, which trust me, is not a cultural thing in Senegal.

Where are the academics? Where is the ambitious “me” who always wanted to write in Nature and Science? Ironically, as a minority, these two journals are not very accessible to me.

I graduate and excel at boundary spanning. I publish papers, and I present at conferences and workshops. I was told “Men do great in academia, women are more fitted for the NGO world”. “You are not smart enough, this is why you work so hard to compensate”. Yet, as Fumio Sasaki puts it in the book “Hello, habits,” genius isn’t something we are born with, it is the fruit of consistency and hard work. The divide is real. The idea that one who fits elsewhere may not be able to produce sound research was something I was exposed to very early on in my academic career.

“While academia is better placed to provide sound theoretical, methodological, technical expertise, NGOs align research efforts with local needs and political realities and communicate research findings to policymakers.” Ishaku et al (2021) argued as they tried to make the case that NGOs were not yet qualified to conduct sound research. But doesn’t that mean that again, academia finds itself far from a reality that increasingly invites immediate action? These are not mutually exclusive contexts but the divide is dangerously real.

In this edition, we put forth examples of unconventional career paths in non-traditional research that have shed light on global and local understudied issues. Katie Matthews describes her unconventional yet fulfilling route to the discovery of fish diplomacy and how she moved from the academic realm to the world of NGOs. Jack Kittinger explores where resilience and resolve to pursue hard work can come from, and how academic settings can disturb the ability to have a sense of place. In their piece, Stephanie Oserwa Schandorf and Kafui Adzo Tona-Gaogli, very thoughtfully connect the previous edition surrounding Climate Resilience with the current edition, Beyond Academia, stating that, “the ocean-climate discourse is often centered within the academic and scientific community and perceived as a problem of academia, rather than as a socio-political concern or practical problem affecting all well-being and livelihoods.” 

How to cite this page:

Belhabib, D. (2022). Genius Lies in the Sense of Place [online] Available at:

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