[From the Chronicle of Higher Education, Sept. 1, 2006]

Digging Into the Roots of Research Ethics

How a Canadian ethnobotanist became a champion of research that advances the lot of indigenous peoples


Victoria, British Columbia

A recent spate of scandals in science suggests that researchers often risk violating ethical standards to advance their personal or professional standing.

Kelly P. Bannister, an ethnobotanist at the University of Victoria here, has risked quite a bit in precisely the opposite direction. As a graduate student in the late 1990s, she twice bucked norms of science to deter commercialization of her research and to share the results of her work with indigenous peoples in Canada.

While studying how an indigenous group in British Columbia uses plants for food and medicine, she withheld extracts of the plants from her graduate supervisor, who wanted to sell them to a pharmaceutical company. Then, when she finished her dissertation, she had it sealed for five years. She didn't want companies to profit from her published work, perhaps at the expense—or at least at the displeasure— of the Indian groups that had collaborated with her.

The decisions cost her time, stress, and the coin of the academic realm—publications. Ms. Bannister also lost her graduate supervisor after the dispute over her plant samples.

Her choices could have withered her research career. But surprisingly, perhaps because she continues to rank her own interests lower than those of the aboriginal peoples she works with, her career is flour- ishing.

Ms. Bannister, 41, an adjunct professor of environmental studies, directs a research-and-policy center dedicated to environmental projects at Victoria. She is in demand for publishing on the ethics of research involving aboriginal peoples, and she sits on several university, national, and international committees working to reform research policies.

Her studies focus on making academic research, writ large, more equitable to the indigenous groups it often studies. She concentrates on intellectual property — the stories, songs, and traditions of aboriginal peoples, which have in the past often been exploited or published without the agreement of those who shared them with the researchers.

"As academics," says George P. Nicholas, a professor of archaeology at British Columbia's Simon Fraser University, who has collaborated with Ms. Bannister, "we can look at the problems and identify their causes and say, Here are some solutions. It's another thing entirely to make a commitment ... to talk to the communities as well as to deal with academic institutions, professional societies, and international policy-making organizations."

Ms. Bannister, he says, "perhaps more than anyone else I know, has been willing to make that kind of commitment."

Dressed Down

Kelly Bannister grew up in the small city of Nanaimo, on the east coast of Vancouver Island. This instigator of progressive change is the daughter of conservative parents, her father a self-made businessman. A former college runner, she still bears the leanness and energy of an athlete and wears shorts and trail shoes to work. She and her husband, Ronald, and their 3-year-old daughter, Katia, live on tiny, forested Thetis Island, a 20-minute ferry ride across the Strait of Georgia from Vancouver Island.

Ms. Bannister did not set out to focus on research ethics. She earned bachelor's and master's degrees in microbiology at the University of Victoria. After several years teaching there, she embarked on an almost accidental transition from molecular biology to ethnobotany.

She happened to meet Nancy J. Turner, a professor and ethnobotany researcher at Victoria. "I said, 'ethno-what?'" Ms. Bannister remembers. But she was intrigued by what she learned, and signed up to be a research assistant in Ms. Turner's group in the summer of 1995, doing laboratory tests of samples from plants used by the Secwepemc people, in the southern interior of British Columbia.

That fall she began studying for her Ph.D. in the botany department of the University of British Columbia, under a supervisor named G.H. Neil Towers, a prominent plant chemist. She continued doing research on Ms. Turner's project studying traditional uses of plants among the Secwepemc and working in Mr. Towers's laboratory to analyze the specimens.

Early on she discovered that her research would have to involve more than fieldwork, lab work, and publishing. During one of her first meetings with the tribal elders, she presented her research proposal. As Ms. Bannister recalls, one elder stood up and challenged her, saying, "They've taken our land. They've taken our culture. And now they're going to take the only things we have left, our medicines."

Ms. Bannister was deeply shaken by that challenge, even though the elder noted that she had not meant to include Ms. Bannister in her indictment.

"I came away thinking, 'I can't do this, I can't do this,'" Ms. Bannister remembers.

Prospecting or Piracy?

The Secwepemc elder's attitude is not unusual, says Doris M. Cook, a senior policy adviser at the Canadian Institutes of Health Research. Many aboriginal people around the world have become skeptical of research after scientists working with them have broken promises or neglected to inform them of the results of the studies.

Ms. Cook, who is Mohawk, recalls researchers in her community studying how industrial pollution had affected people's health. The local people did not hear of the results for 17 years. What's more, a published report — which Ms. Cook found 20 years after the original study — listed the names of all of the participants, violating the original requirement of anonymity.

"In the past," she says, "the benefits of research have accrued to the researchers and their institutions, in the forms of higher education, Ph.D.'s, postdocs, articles, and career advancement. Aboriginal people have not really benefited from it."

Ethnobotany has proven particularly controversial. The field aims to understand how people use plants, but it is also intimately tied to bioprospecting (sometimes called "biopiracy"), which involves attempts to develop pharmaceuticals from plants used by local people. Critics say drug companies benefit by appropriating, or even stealing, indigenous knowledge, some of which is obtained via academic research.

Ronald E. Ignace, who was chief of one of the Secwepemc bands for 20 years, says his people were "burned" when researchers claimed copyright to publications resulting from the elders' sharing of the band's stories.

As a result, the Secwepemc set conditions for researchers who want to study their knowledge or practices: the copyright to any publications had to go to an educational nonprofit group that Mr. Ignace had started; researchers could use what they learned only for educational purposes; and researchers' field notes would belong to the Secwepemc museum.

Despite her dressing-down by the tribal elder, Ms. Bannister decided that she could do the research in accordance with the group's conditions. But she soon learned that her own philosophy differed from that of her supervisor, who felt that the university laboratory should earn money for supplies by selling the plant extracts to a drug company. (Mr. Towers died in 2004.)

Despite being just a third-year graduate student, Ms. Bannister took a stand. She insisted that she could not go along with his plan without the approval of representatives of the Secwepemc people. Mr. Towers refused to meet with them. A few weeks later, Ms. Bannister received a letter from Mr. Towers resigning as her supervisor.

To keep her Ph.D. program going, Iain E.P. Taylor, now a professor emeritus who was then the head of the botany department at the University of British Columbia, agreed to become her supervisor jointly with Ms. Turner, who had an adjunct position at Victoria. "When the rug was being pulled out from under me, he gave me another rug to stand on," Ms. Bannister says of Mr. Taylor.

"Neil Towers was a great subscriber to the commons," says Mr. Taylor. "Kelly was certainly one of his most talented students. He and she banged heads over this agreement."

Mr. Towers later rejoined Ms. Bannister's dissertation committee, although not as her supervisor, and was at her dissertation defense.

Sharing the Fruits

Ms. Bannister's dissertation, which she completed in 2000, turned out to be "good, sound, solid stuff," says Mr. Taylor, who is one of the few people to have seen her raw data. (They remain unpublished today.) Making the laboratory results all the more interesting, he says, was the cultural context that she provided along with her data.

For instance, she described the way the Secwepemc cook a plant called balsamroot for use as food, and the different way they prepare it for use as a medicine.

She received permission from the University of British Columbia to place her dissertation in "restricted access" — a step normally taken by students wishing to apply for patent protection — for five years, so that she could work with the Secwepemc people to publish her work (and that of others doing ethnobotanical research with the band) in a book format that would be useful to them.

Ms. Bannister refused to seek publication of her data in a scientific journal. "Publication is the first and easiest source for biotechnology and pharmaceutical and other corporate entities to just come in and scoop up the information for free, and without any connection to the original knowledge holders," she says. "I didn't want to contribute to it."

Adds Mr. Nicholas, who served on her dissertation committee: "That's an extremely brave stance — some would say foolish stance — for a new Ph.D."

"It's a principle," she says. "Me, tiny little me, standing up for my principles."

It wouldn't be the last time. When the five-year period ended, in June 2005, the publishing efforts were not complete and she received a yearlong extension, followed by a three-month extension this June. Ms. Bannister is putting together draft chapters for academic and tribal review. The University of Victoria will publish the book as part of its Western Geographic series. The press will share the copyright and potential royalties with the Secwepemc people. The book will contain an explicit statement, the wording to be worked out with tribal representatives, that the Secwepemc retain rights to their cultural innovations and expect to be contacted for any future use of the information.

"What I'm trying to counter," she says, "is the severing between the community source of knowledge and expertise, and the end publication, in which the academic authors usually are the ones who are credited for the information." Typically, she says, "those at the last stages of the invention or the discovery or the knowledge creation are the ones who get the most reward." She chooses to share the attribution instead.

Sidney N. Jules, who is Secwepemc, says he is sure that Ms. Bannister's work will be useful for the band. "A lot of the people that she did research with have passed on," he says. "If she didn't do the research when she did, we would have lost a lot of knowledge." Her slow and collaborative approach to publishing, he says, "certainly showed that she was aware of the cultural aspects and understood the importance of not just exploiting the information."

New Agreements

In the years since receiving her Ph.D., Ms. Bannister has continued doing ethnobotanical research — but only outside academe. She works as a consultant with indigenous groups when they request it and does not publish academic articles on that work.

Her work at the University of Victoria has concentrated on the intellectual-property and ethical issues of research collaborations between academic researchers and indigenous peoples.

In one project, she worked with local and indigenous groups around Clayoquot Sound, on the west coast of Vancouver Island, to develop standards for conducting research there. The 30-page document called on scientists to involve local people in the research through employment or volunteer work, to work out in advance any restrictions on the data, and to decide who would own, or profit from, commercial rights to the material.

An appendix provides a draft letter of consent for use when the research involves any of five Indian bands in the area, together known as the Central Region Nuu-chah-nulth First Nations. The research participants and the scientists sign it, acknowledging that the participants own and control the information they provide, and that they "will have an opportunity to deny publication or public distribution of any of the information [they] provide."

Those requirements are controversial, says Rodney Dobell, a professor emeritus of public policy at Victoria, who was principal investigator and a collaborator with Ms. Bannister on a three-year grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada for work around Clayoquot Sound. "This is where you start to run into problems with researchers, who feel they are in control of the interpretation of the evidence they've gathered," he says. "This is still a somewhat unsettled area."

The standards took two years to develop, until August 2003. Such work is important to creating trusting relationships in research, says Michael F. Brown, a professor of anthropology at Williams College and author of the 2003 book Who Owns Native Culture? (Harvard University Press). "That's why the work of Kelly Bannister and some of her colleagues is so remarkable, because they've put in the time to work out collaborative contracts," he says. "But the front-end commitment is huge."

The process, Ms. Bannister acknowledges, "took a lot longer than we thought it would." But the slowness can be typical of working out agreements with politically and culturally diverse peoples, she says. And academe often fails to acknowledge that. "The timelines we have to adhere to stem from funders and from reward and promotion criteria," she says. "Those systemic pressures can set us up to fail or to be inadequate in developing standards" for research.

R. Michael M'Gonigle, a professor of environmental law and policy at Victoria and an author of the new book Planet U: Sustaining the World, Reinventing the University, (New Society Publishers), concurs: "What's needed is a shift in the university reward system to value the needs of the community, to value [researchers] giving on-the-ground results."

Mr. Brown agrees with much of what Ms. Bannister stands for. "There should be legitimate and durable protections for indigenous peoples in certain areas," he declares. But he does not think that aboriginal people should own information, other than forms that can be copyrighted, related to their cultures. When it comes to academic publications, such ownership, he says, "assumes that the anthropologist or biologist just absorbs information, doesn't process it, doesn't analyze it, doesn't contribute anything to it."

Were he presented with the condition that an Indian group had to own the copyright on anything he published, he says, he would decline to do research with that group. "If I write it," he says, "it's mine." [Michael Brown's clarification of this out-of-context quotation.]

Ignorance, Not Malice

Ms. Bannister says she has never felt deprived of credit for her work with indigenous groups. Sharing copyright is just one possible answer. Sometimes the solution is simply quoting the person who gave the information. "What I have a problem with is distancing the knowledge from the original source," she says. "Particularly for academics, whose whole enterprise rests on due credit."

She and others see reason for optimism. Aboriginal groups are increasingly standing up for themselves, professional groups are developing codes of ethics, and grant-making bodies in Canada and elsewhere are exploring new ethical requirements for researchers working with indigenous peoples. International agreements, like the Convention on Biological Diversity, accepted by 150 governments in 1992, encourage signatories to recognize the importance of the knowledge of indigenous peoples and to collaborate and share benefits with them. The World Intellectual Property Organization has been working since 1998 on a program to protect traditional knowledge, and is discussing draft provisions.

Ms. Bannister is working with the University of Victoria, the Canadian government, and internationally in an attempt to change the ethical rules and support systems for researchers working with aboriginal groups and other local peoples. She is also collaborating with Mr. Nicholas of Victoria on a major new international project to study intellectual-property problems, and potential solutions, in archaeology.

Much of her work, she says, boils down to raising awareness: "A lot of the source of the problems that arise is ignorance. I actually don't think that people have malicious intent to harm and deceive."

Ms. Bannister's work in pushing for change is important, says Marianne Ignace, an associate professor of anthropology and First Nations studies at Simon Fraser University, and the wife of Ronald Ignace, the former chief of a Secwepemc band. "The natural-science community badly needs people like Kelly to alert them to those kinds of issues," she says.

Ms. Bannister's own experience in graduate school woke her up to the perspective of aboriginal people who are under the researchers' microscopes — and to the conflicting demands on the researchers themselves.

"My learning curve was as valuable as anything else I've experienced in terms of understanding the pulls by my academic obligations in one direction and the expectations and needs of the community in another direction," she says. "I can't continue to be here at the university if I'm not going to work on the systemic problem."