‘Helicopter research’ comes under fire at Cape Town conference Science

When researchers from wealthy countries engage in “helicopter research”—thoughtless field research in poorer countries that extracts data without respectful collaboration—they violate research integrity and pose a moral problem, say attendees at last week’s World Conference on Research Integrity, held in Cape Town South Africa. The scientists, ethicists, and others at the meeting hope their new framing will elevate the issue and help spur systemic solutions, rather than leaving the task of building fair collaborations up to individual researchers.

The conference saw the launch of the “Cape Town Statement” on equitable research partnerships. Consensus-gathering events at the conference compiled ideas that will feed into the eventual statement, which a team of collaborators plans to submit to an academic journal.

Researchers in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) often feel they are “not adequately appreciated” when they partner with researchers from wealthier countries, Francis Kombe, co-chair of the African Research Integrity Network and a contributor to the statement, told the conference. Local experts are too often not listed as authors, cannot access data they gathered, and don’t have the power to steer research to local priorities, studies of the issue have found.

Such “scientific colonialism” uses the same tactics as colonialism has historically, Sue Harrison, deputy vice-chancellor for Research and Internationalization at the University of Cape Town, said at the event. It extracts data instead of raw materials—and undermines and underfunds local infrastructure and skills. This leaves researchers in LMICs without the publications, patents, and skills of their wealthier counterparts.

The numerous existing statements and guidelines on helicopter research tend to focus on what individuals and small groups can do to make collaboration more fair, Kombe said. The Cape Town Statement instead will offer a guide for how institutions, including universities, funders, and journals can make a difference.

Funders are key, says Minal Pathak, a climate researcher at Ahmedabad University. They often require researchers from wealthier nations to partner with a local institution, but that’s not enough, she says. They could also set out expectations for equal authorship and access to data, for instance. It’s difficult for individual researchers in less powerful countries to address these problems, even when they have friendly relationships with collaborators: “I’m among the most privileged in my country, and yet I feel this way.”

“This is the right time to be talking about this,” says Juan Carlos Cisneros, a paleontologist at the Federal University of Piauí, who says helicopter research in his field can lead to illegal acquisition of specimens. The statement will pressure the “main players,” such as universities and museums, who “don’t want to be linked to bad practices.”

The field of research integrity has not historically focused on equity, says James Lavery, a bioethicist at Emory University and a contributor to the statement. Instead, “the whole space has been completely dominated by the US regulatory approach,” which has meant focusing on fraud, plagiarism, and human subject protections—a view he calls “excruciatingly narrow.” More recently, those in the field have broadened their focus to issues such as harassment and authorship. Now, equity is coming to the fore.

In a background paper laying out what the Cape Town Statement should achieve, the authors argue that inequity can impact the quality of research. Without local expertise, they say, research may not address the most important questions. Instruments that aren’t adapted to local cultures may result in poor data. And ethical issues of credit and access can go unaddressed.

This year’s African location for the World Conference on Research Integrity seems to have spurred a wave of focus on the problem, says Lisa Rasmussen, a research ethicist at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte. The impact of the statement will be hard to track, she says, but it may prompt incremental change.

Pathak is hopeful the statement may have an effect, even though it’s not the first to articulate these problems. “Maybe it’s not new. But maybe we need to say it another time.”

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