The World’s Oldest Population Demands Fair Treatment in New Code of Ethics
The San people of Southern Africa, after over a century of study by scientists, are finally pushing back against questionable research practices. On March 2nd, a new code of ethics was established in Cape Town by the South African San Council, with hopes that the new policy will serve as a well-defined blueprint to prevent the exploitation and unwanted intrusion into San communities. The code was introduced during a conference among members of TRUST, an international organization created in 2015 to perpetuate high ethical practices among researchers.
Thought to be the world’s oldest living population of humans, the San people have been measured, photographed, and studied as subjects in a variety of scientific studies. The San, known controversially as “Bushmen,” have lived as hunter-gatherers for thousands of years, and evidence from the largest study of African DNA suggests that they are directly descended from the original population of early humans. Due to their history and traditional cultural practices, the San people have gained notorious attention amongst researchers. Unfortunately, as subjects of study, the San are frequently exploited for commercial gain, with no direct benefit to their communities. The new ethical guidelines hope to change this and put an end to the mistreatment of the San people in scientific research.
The changes do not imply that research must stop altogether, but rather that research must be conducted on the terms of the San, with respect to their wishes. Council director Leana Snyders commented on the issues that have come with the inflow of researchers over the past decades, stating that “They don’t all respect personal boundaries.” The council’s new guidelines are centered around four main pillars- respect, honesty, justice and fairness, and care- which aim to give authority back to the San people and ensure they understand the research that is to be done, consent to it, and are compensated sufficiently for their participation. The code makes clear that information that could be seen as insulting should not be published, meaning that scientists should let communities read and give feedback on studies before they go into the publication phase. “Before somebody publishes anything they need to discuss it with the community. Then the community can say: You don’t understand, or that it’s damaging,” said Snyders. Further, the council notes that other issues include using insensitive language when communicating with the San and approaching individuals before seeking permission from San leaders.
Another major component of the code is that researchers should keep their promises and give something back to the San for their cooperation in studies. The way in which researchers have used the San people’s knowledge of their natural environment provides a clear example of the exploitation of the population, something the new code aims to combat. For instance, San hunter-gatherers shared their knowledge about medical plants, leading to the weight-loss fad involving the African plant Hoodia, yet received nothing in return for this exchange of information. “When a researcher comes they enrich themselves of our culture and our knowledge,” said Snyders. “But our communities remain in poverty; their daily life does not change. We want to change that.” The code therefore seeks to ensure that benefits are shared among both researchers and the San people when San knowledge is used for commercial developments in cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, food, and beverages. These benefits to the San people do not have to be solely monetary, but could also manifest in the form of knowledge, education, or job opportunities.[2,4]
While the code indicates a shift toward a certainty of basic protections for the San people, some researchers point out that the document doesn’t reference the recent efforts that have been made to respect and engage communities, such as the 2014 guidelines for genomics work in Africa presented by Human Heredity and Health in Africa. Charles Rotimi, founding director of the National Institutes of Health Center for Research on Genomics and Global Health, suggests that the code may issue an exaggeratedly negative view of researchers, which could discourage communities from becoming involved in studies. Further, according to Snyders, “Should any other research institution want to use the data, they need to acquire informed consent from the council.” This requirement of needing San permission to reuse data for new purposes is a concern for researchers such as David Reich, a geneticist at Harvard Medical School, who states, “Other researchers need to be free to reanalyze the data to come to their own conclusions. … If this is not possible, then science cannot be done.”
Gosling, Melanie. “San Council launches code of ethics for researchers.” Mail & Guardian. Published March 6, 2017. https://mg.co.za/article/2017-03-06-san-council-launches-code-of-ethics-for-researchers
Chutel, Lynsey. “The world’s oldest population of humans is pushing back against unethical researchers.” Quartz. Published March 10, 2017. https://qz.com/928751/the-worlds-oldest-population-of-humans-is-pushing-back-against-unethical-researchers/
Connor, Steve. “World's most ancient race traced in DNA study.” The Independent. Published April 30, 2009. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/worlds-most-ancient-race-traced-in-dna-study-1677113.html
Nordling, Linda. “San people of Africa draft code of ethics for researchers.” Science Magazine. Published March 17, 2017. http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2017/03/san-people-africa-draft-code-ethics-researchers