Valarie Blue Bird Jernigan knew she had to tweak some standard scientific practices when she started her latest research project. One of the first things to go was the usual concept of a control group — people who would not receive interventions to encourage healthy eating. That wouldn’t be fair to the people of the Osage Nation, a Native American people in northeastern Oklahoma.
Another concept to ditch was the idea that she was studying a group at all. Jernigan, a public-health researcher, who is Native American herself, has treated the Osage people as equal partners from the first day of the project. It took two years and seemingly endless rounds of community discussions to get the study off the ground, but Jernigan wouldn’t have had it any other way. This kind of research “isn’t just about proving your hypothesis”, she says. It’s more about improving people’s lives and, at the same time, helping them gain the skills to do science.
Jernigan’s approach, often referred to as community-based participatory research, has been gaining traction for the past two decades. It has become particularly important for research that involves indigenous and other populations who have been mistreated by scientists in the past. The Havasupai tribe in Arizona, for example, waged a lengthy legal battle with Arizona State University in Phoenix over researchers’ misuse of blood samples that the tribe had provided for a diabetes study in the 1990s. The samples were eventually returned as part of a settlement two decades later. The lessons learnt from the event have set the tone for how best to do research involving Native Americans.