“Helicopter research” is a term that describes what it evokes – researchers from wealthier countries airlifting samples or collecting data from poorer countries without meaningful contact or collaboration with the communities they took them from.

The Khoe-San people in South Africa are no stranger to exploitative research. From rooibos tea to hoodia cactus-derived dietary supplements, the community has historically had to fight for fair compensation and recognition for their contributions to science and medicine. But even for well-meaning researchers, defining what is a fair and equitable exchange can be murky and difficult to execute.

Geneticists Dana Al-Hindi and Brenna Henn of the University of California, Davis are grappling with this question as they conduct their own research. They have partnered with personal DNA testing company 23andMe to provide individual genetic ancestry results to the Khoe-San communities they’re working with. But it’s clear that addressing concerns about exploitative and coercive research won’t be easy.

“Other companies have already promised long-term benefits by sharing equity and profit with participating communities,” they write. “Are individual ancestry results and community grants a sufficient and fair exchange against the profits the company will gain from this collaboration?”

Also today:

Vivian Lam

Assistant Health and Biomedicine Editor

How a South African community’s request for its genetic data raises questions about ethical and equitable research

Dana Al-Hindi, University of California, Davis; Brenna Henn, University of California, Davis

The South African Khoe-San communities are no strangers to exploitative research. One research team is trying to provide genetic ancestry results to community members. But they still face many challenges.

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