Tribe to Scientists: We Have Ethical Rules for You

Much-studied San people want respect from researchers
By Elizabeth Armstrong Moore,  Newser Staff
Posted Mar 27, 2017 4:32 PM CDT
Tribe to Scientists: We Have Ethical Rules for You
A member of the San tribe in the Kalahari desert.   (Getty Images / Sproetniek)

The San people of South Africa, an indigenous group often called "bushmen" by Westerners, have been the subject of countless scientific investigations into everything from their rituals and click languages to their genomes. Now the San are asking for something in return: Respect. They've published a code of ethics as part of the Trust Project, asking that scientists adhere to certain conditions, such as: submit research requests in advance to San councils, not just with their universities; don't take photos of individuals without consent; and don't misrepresent the work, notes the Smithsonian. They also ask that researchers share the benefits of the study, which may mean knowledge, not money, reports Science. The dicey part: They want researchers to present their studies to the San prior to publication to be vetted for inaccuracies or offenses.

“We’ve been bombarded by researchers over the years,” says Hennie Swart, director of the South African San Institute. “It’s not a question of not doing the research. It’s a question of doing it right.” The code is not legally binding, though researchers who run afoul of it risk being blacklisted from further study. The San become the first indigenous group in Africa to adopt such a code, though groups in Australia and Canada have done so previously. Nature reports that the code was developed by leaders of the !Xun, Khwe and !Khomani groups of San, representing 8,000 people in South Africa. It's not clear if San groups outside the country will follow suit. Researchers "should honor it," says a geneticist in South Africa who has analyzed the genomes of San people. "That's what social justice is all about." (More Indigenous peoples stories.)

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