Ethical disaster-zone research.

Ideally, weekends provide not just a chance to catch up on household chores, but also opportunity for reflection and centering, for meditation on things that matter. 

For this latter purpose it often helps to have a starting point – material giving some initial focus and structure to your thinking. 

JC Gaillard and Lori Peek have provided just such a rich source of ideas for you in their comment published November 20 in Nature, entitled Disaster-zone research needs a code of conduct.

They introduce the topic this way:

A magnitude-7.0 earthquake rocked Anchorage, Alaska, in late November 2018. Roads buckled and chimneys tumbled from rooftops. Business operations were disrupted. Schools were damaged across the district. This was the largest earthquake to shake the region in a generation, and there was much to learn. What was the state of the infrastructure? Might further quakes occur? How did people respond? Teams of scientists and engineers from across the United States mobilized to conduct field reconnaissance in partnership with local researchers and practitioners. These efforts were coordinated through the clearing house set up by the Earthquake Engineering Research Institute in Oakland, California, which provided daily in-person and online briefings, as well as a web portal for sharing data.

But researchers are not always so welcome in disaster zones. After the deadly Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami on 26 December 2004, hundreds of academics from countries including Japan, Russia, France and the United States rushed to the region to collect perishable data. This influx of foreign scientists angered and fatigued some locals; many declined researchers’ requests for interviews. The former governor of Aceh province, Indonesia, where more than 128,000 people died, described foreign researchers as “guerrillas applying hit-and-run tactics”. Yet research on tsunami propagation and people’s response to the event has led to improved warnings and emergency-response plans.

Hooked? You should be. This dilemma runs across the whole of the social sciences – think, for example, about studies of poverty, or spousal abuse, or the rights of the LGBTQ community. But nowhere is it more raw or sensitive than when whole populations are devastated by catastrophe, rummaging around an apocalyptic landscape, devoid of much of the social and physical underpinnings of their former lives, coming to terms with a new normal. 

Hopefully you will want to peruse the complete Nature comment carefully. Again, to pique your interest, Gaillard and Peek argue that any code of conduct should embody three guiding principles:

  • Have a clear purpose
  • Respect local voices
  • Coordinate locals and outsiders

They expand on each of these in turn, in crisp, unambiguous language. A good summary of the issues. Sound advice, making priorities clear, but stimulating thought, leaving room for situational flexibility. 

By now, you should be eager to get reading! But before you start, a few closing comments (admittedly from the perspective of a bystander, someone not doing research in this area):

Benefit those impacted. First (and the detailed discussion by Gaillard and Peek make this explicit) the scientists’ purpose can’t merely be clear, it has to contribute to the benefit and recovery of those who have been most impacted by the calamity, not only the myriad others who may hypothetically be impacted by similar events in future years. Social scientists should be doing more than merely “documenting human failure” ever more authoritatively.

Institutional Review Boards. Most universities, and many other entities, have established IRB’s to ensure that their researchers (especially in social and health fields) do no harm to those who are subjects in their studies. At least from my sideline vantage point, it seems IRB’s struggle when it comes to disaster research, just as communities and individuals struggle with disasters themselves. Sometimes it appears that IRB’s settle for protecting their institutuions from litigation, as opposed to heavier lift of respecting the needs of those recovering from disasters.

Participatory action researchWikipedia summarizes this as:

an approach to research in communities that emphasizes participation and action. It seeks to understand the world by trying to change it, collaboratively and following reflection. PAR emphasizes collective inquiry and experimentation grounded in experience and social history. Within a PAR process, “communities of inquiry and action evolve and address questions and issues that are significant for those who participate as co-researchers”. PAR contrasts with many research methods, which emphasize disinterested researchers and reproducibility of findings.

This suggests that social science researchers do well, particularly with respect to the ethical dimensions of their work, when they embed themselves to the extent possible in the communities where they work, make their goals and aspirations congruent to the extent possible with the interests of those communities, and work together to develop the knowledge and understanding that will lead to recovery and to improved future outcomes.  Again (to an outsider), it looks as if many of the conflicts of interest facing researchers disappear by the application of such methods, the more so as the ideal is approached.

Gaillard and Peek go on to discuss first steps. They’ve teed up a much-needed conversation. Now it’s time for the rest of us to join in both the conversation and (more ethical) action.

Everybody have a good weekend!

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