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Sept. 18, 2015

Improving collaboration between Native Americans and climate scientists

Hoping to improve Native American tribes’ access to climate science tools, a Michigan State University researcher will use a four-year $450,000 National Science Foundation grant to foster better relations between tribes and scientific organizations when dealing with climate change.

Tribes are among the groups most affected by climate change, and they’re also some of the most knowledgeable when it comes to strategies for adaptation, said Kyle Whyte, Timnick Chair in the Humanities and associate professor of philosophy in the College of Arts and Letters.

He’ll work with researchers in MSU’s College of Natural Science and in the College of Menominee Nation Sustainable Development Institute, in Wisconsin, to design a set of recommendations to help scientists and government organizations work ethically with indigenous peoples.

“This project will initiate, for the first time, a process in which reporting occurs through surveys and case studies to gauge more sensitively participants’ understanding of practices that promote or impede ethical collaboration,” Whyte said. “The federal government has a responsibility to support Native American sovereignty, and a key part is tribes must have equitable access to scientific resources that can be used to plan for climate change.”

Climate scientists have data on historical and projected climate trends, modeling tools and access to technologies, such as aerial photography, to inform their decision making processes, he said. But ethical issues, such as cultural disrespect, conflicts of interest and concerns about intellectual property, often derail efforts to collaborate.

“Multidisciplinary research collaborations such as this one are vital if we as a society are going to effectively and ethically address interdisciplinary problems like climate change decision making,” said Julie Libarkin, associate professor, MSU Geocognition Research Lab.

An important part of the project is the partnership between MSU and the College of Menominee Nation, Whyte said. The partners will combine Western and indigenous concepts of research, ethics and evaluation.

“There is a growing body of climate research in which tribes are either the lead or an equal partner, rather than just the focus,” said Christopher Caldwell, director of the College of Menominee Nation Sustainable Development Institute. “This benefits not only tribal communities, but all communities looking to heal the relationships we have within our environment. Our project will help tribes move forward in a positive way by having all partners think through what we have done and where we go next.”

By: Kristen Parker

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