On Monday 13th March, from 5:30 – 7pm (GMT/UK time), the Conservation Ecology Special Interest Group (SIG) and the British Ecological Society (BES) Policy Team will be holding an online panel discussion on the theme of Ethical fieldwork, avoiding ‘helicopter science’ and building truly collaborative research partnerships. Conversations about the societal and environmental impacts of conservation practice, such as ‘fortress conservation’, e.g., (Adams and Hutton, 2007), are now common, if not severely overdue. Similarly, conversations about the impact of colonial legacies and ever-present societal inequalities of ecological and conservation science practices, e.g., (Trisos et al., 2021), are increasingly evident. But deeply ingrained societal norms, coupled with unconscious biases, and in some cases, conscious enforcement of power imbalances, are continuing the unethical conduct of conservation science. Until we acknowledge the presence of these inequalities, learn to identify them, and speak out about them, we will not find solutions.

The practice of conservation science takes many forms, from counting butterfly population densities in urban back-gardens across the UK, to interviewing rural communities about their experience of elephant damage in India. Carrying out fieldwork exposes researchers, research assistants, interviewees, communities and often unintended individuals to new opportunities, and importantly, to new hazards. When researchers from Minority World countries (the Global North) travel to Majority World countries (the Global South), one key hazard is the continued power imbalance that negatively impacts on Majority World stakeholders. (See this blog by Mark Reed on the problematic use of ‘stakeholders’.) One imbalance is represented by the concept of helicopter, or parachute science, whereby researchers from Minority World countries collect data in a Majority World country, often relying heavily on local expertise and help, but do not contribute to funding or to supporting capacity for further research in that country, and/ or sufficiently recognise the work of local collaborators or engage with the local context. (Asha de Vos and colleagues write eloquently on the subject in this Special Issue of Conservation Science and Practice.)

In order to reduce the risk of fieldwork being of the ‘helicopter’ kind, contributing to further inequalities, and to encourage its practice to become net positive, Laura Picot and Catherine Fallon Grasham, from the University of Oxford, have compiled a Code of Conduct for Ethical Fieldwork document. In less than 10 pages, they distil the vital questions that we each need to ask ourselves and our teams as we plan and conduct fieldwork: from setting research objectives, establishing ways of working, working with field research staff, building cross-cultural relationships, using research findings, and creating a lasting positive impact. The Code of Conduct is relevant to all fieldwork exercises, across geographies and disciplines, providing a flexible framework that challenges individuals to explore aspects of project planning beyond those flagged in institutional ethics review processes. The authors provide principles and questions to guide you through planning more ethical fieldwork, such as:

  • How are you protecting field team members who may be at risk due to their gender, sexual orientation, religion etc.? (including yourself)
  • How do you refer to field team members? As “field assistants”? Or as “field researchers” or ”field research staff”?
  • How do you respond to people in need? Do you have a duty of care?
  • Could your research results be used to oppress or undermine the host communities or individuals / groups within them?

The Conservation Ecology SIG, in association with the BES, would like to create a safe, and brave space in which people can have a dialogue about fieldwork practices in conservation science, share experiences of unethical and ethical conduct, and importantly, to discuss potential solutions. On 13th March, we will be joined by six researchers, three from Majority World countries and three Minority World, all with experience of engaging in conservation-related fieldwork involving international partnerships. After an introduction to the University of Oxford’s Code of Conduct by author, Laura Picot, we will explore the theme of ‘helicopter science’ and solutions to it, amongst the panelists. The second half of the event will provide the audience with an opportunity to interact with the panel, asking questions and offering solutions. The event is open to all, and we hope all attendees will leave with one personal action to try towards promoting more ethical fieldwork practices. We look forward to pushing the dialogue one step forward on this topic, which is at the heart of ethical and effective ecological and conservation science and practice. You can register for the online event here until 10th March 2023. Please direct any questions about the event to conservation@britishecologicalsociety.org.


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