We recently called for a code of conduct in disaster research. This call is rooted in our respect for the research process itself and our care for affected people and the researchers who do this work. To be clear, we are calling for a cross-disciplinary conversation to advance a shared set of moral and ethical principles to help guide what we study, who we study, how we conduct studies, and who is involved in the research process itself. We are not arguing for another layer of bureaucratic or regulatory oversight such as those required in some countries by internal review boards and ethics committees. Our hope is that such a discussion will launch first within focused academic and policy meetings, before it can be scaled up to the regional and eventually international levels.
Our intent is to prompt further reflection and conversation around the following three possibilities for ensuring that disaster scholarship is relevant, fair, and ethically sound.
First, it is essential that research has a clear purpose that is rooted in present knowledge gaps and emergent context-specific research priorities in the disaster aftermath. The collaborative work that happens before disaster and in the immediate aftermath can help clarify the focus of research studies and ensure that the knowledge generated is locally-relevant and hence more likely to effectively inform response, recovery and future disaster risk reduction efforts.
Second, ensuring that research is filling relevant knowledge gaps requires that local voices be put at the forefront of the research effort. Local voices may include a range of perspectives, including those of local researchers and those who hail from elsewhere but hold deep knowledge of the places and people affected by disasters. They also comprise those voices of the survivors whose ability to deal with the event and contribute to the recovery effort is central to rebuilding damaged physical infrastructure as well as people’s lives and livelihoods. Ensuring that local researchers and survivors are in the driving seat does not exclude outside researchers when prompted by local colleagues. In many instances, outside scholars have access to a wide range of resources (e.g., equipment, funding, time) that may be unavailable locally in times of collective hardship. Crucial, though, is that local researchers have the opportunity to lead efforts associated with research design, data collection and analysis, and ultimately the sharing of findings.
Third, it is crucial that research agendas and projects launched in the disaster aftermath be ethically coordinated and involve locals and outsiders. This means that local researchers need to be identified quickly after disaster—the National Science Foundation-supported Extreme Events Research and Reconnaissance networks have already jump-started these efforts. There are many other organizations and networks globally that have advanced new methods for identifying researchers and communicating creatively in the disaster aftermath through virtual forums and virtual reconnaissance efforts that allow for a wider range of researchers to connect, communicate, and ultimately collaborate.
Engaging with the three aforementioned areas of possibility is crucial given the rising number of disasters and disaster studies. It is clear that disasters stir the interest of researchers, as evidenced by the growing number of academic publications on the topic. Most of these researchers are driven by a genuine desire to contribute to reducing suffering, but researching disasters can be difficult and there is not a clear ethical playbook for how to proceed.
This becomes especially pressing because researching disasters entails navigating a complex and sensitive environment where survivors may struggle with both the consequences of the event and the task of recovering. Meanwhile, local and outside responders try to support the relief and recovery effort. To fully grasp the complexity of the situation, researchers need to be equipped with an appropriate ethical toolkit that goes beyond the requirements of the research ethics committees of universities and other research institutions. It entails a nuanced understanding of the cultural, social, economic and political context wherein disasters unfold. For scholars who choose to work in new contexts following disasters, this sort of competence is difficult to acquire ad-hoc and in a short span of time.
With these challenges in mind, it remains a dominant pattern after major disasters that outside researchers converge and lead studies conducted in locations beyond their familiar cultural environment. In fact, disaster studies are often driven by scholars located in Northern America, Europe, East Asia, and Australasia. A review of publications on disasters over the past four decades shows that there are fewer researchers publishing studies from Africa, South and Southeast Asia, the Pacific, and Latin America although these regions of the world are those where disasters claim more lives and occur more frequently.
Such unequal power relationships in terms of who leads, conducts, and communicates research on disasters influences how disaster scholarship is framed and approached on the ground. Disaster studies are largely informed by Western ontologies and epistemologies that do not necessarily reflect local worldviews and ways of generating knowledge, which means that implications for policy and practice may be misleading.
Identifying these gaps opens up the possibility for reconsidering some of the fundamental assumptions about how research is conducted and ultimately how knowledge is generated and shared. Our call for a code of conduct is about ensuring that ethical concerns have the same primacy as our research questions. We look forward to continuing the conversation.
This post may be cited as:
Gaillard, JC. & Peek, L. (21 March 2020) Towards a code of conduct for ethical post-disaster research. Research Ethics Monthly. Retrieved from: https://ahrecs.com/human-research-ethics/towards-a-code-of-conduct-for-ethical-post-disaster-research