Ethical guidelines ensure that researchers give back

Researchers dogs Greenland sledgedog Arctic Hub

If all goes well, local people in towns and villages will collaborate with scientists to formulate a set of ethical guidelines for research in Greenland. The aim is that researchers acknowledge what the locals supply in terms of knowledge contribution so the research can truly benefit Greenland.


By Uffe Wilken, Polarfronten


The narrative has been the same over the past few years. Researchers from near and far stop by in small towns to interview local people and catchers about their project, only to fly back home again to work with their new knowledge. Here, the usually well-meaning call leave nothing but your footprint gains a different meaning: The visitors receive useful information for their research, but leave nothing to those they have spent time with and who have shared their local knowledge. This disparity is one of the things that new ethical guidelines for research practice in Greenland sets out to rectify.


Round trip knowledge

Josephine Nymand is a researcher at Pinngortitaleriffik (Greenland Institute of Natural Resources) and chair of the Greenland Research Council. She is one among several people working to create some ethical guidelines:


“For the past many years, the Research Council has discussed how we should deal with the fact that there are no ethical guidelines for research in Greenland. Therefore, together with Professor Elizabeth Rink from Montana State University, we seek funding for a joint project to formulate an ethical set of rules on how researchers doing fieldwork in Greenland should behave.”


Formulating ethical guidelines is not new. Documents dating back as far as 1996 state that ethical research guidelines should be formulated for Greenland – but nothing has happened since. Josephine Nymand explains:


“Times call for some form of back and forth, for knowledge sharing with the people that the researchers have involved. They need to communicate the results back to the society that helped create the results, and that’s something we have long wanted to formalize.”

Josephine Nymand emphasizes that it is not a single incident that is the cause of this project, but rather a growing recognition that the need exists. But one thing is to have some intentions about knowledge sharing written in official papers, another thing is how to ensure that the e.g. catcher in Qaanaaq can see the benefits of collaborating with visiting researchers.


From opponent to teammate

Let’s stay with the catcher from Qaanaaq: How do we persuade him to become an active participant in the work of formulating research ethics guidelines? Something that is most likely distant to him, but which will ultimately benefit him. To that Josephine Nymand says:


“In Nuuk and the larger cities, the research is probably more at eye level, and people are more accustomed to collaborating with researchers. But it’s much different in the smaller communities. That’s why, we’ve identified some towns and villages that we would like to go into a dialogue with to see how they can picture meaningful collaboration materialize.”


Building that kind of collaboration takes time. Josephine Nymand explains:


“Yes, it takes time. Gitte Adler Reimer (Rector of Ilisimatusarfik) and Elisabeth Rink spent some time preparing in a settlement one summer. They returned the following year and formed some research questions the village was also interested in hearing the answers to. It takes time and resources. You have to come back, to continue the dialogue to make sure that people can see how this process can also benefit them.”


It is only fair that researchers acknowledge the time and knowledge that local people supply. But what is the usefulness for the locals and for the Greenlandic society? Josephine Nymand replies:


“It’s a question of knowing how valuable my knowledge of my society is – that the knowledge means something to other people besides myself. So the benefit to a small community may be that they help to define some research questions they get to hear the answers to. People can influence the questions that will be asked as well as the research that will be conducted.”


Contact: Josephine Nymand.


This article is part of a theme issue of Polarfronten about Arctic Hub. The issue has been made as a collaboration between Arctic Hub and Polarfronten.

Top banner There are exceptions where research projects are already defined by positive collaboration and subsequent knowledge-sharing with the local communities. An example is the Qimmeq project on the genetics and cultural history of the Greenland sled dog. The picture shows biologist Anders Hansen and a local catcher taking a DNA sample on a sled dog in East Greenland. Photo: Carsten Egevang
Picture 1 Photo: Carsten Egevang