What researchers leave behind

by Andrea V. Breen, Ethan Tassiuk, Jamie Bell
Originally presented at Pathways to Resilience IV in Cape Town, South Africa, 2017

In Arviat there have been many projects and many researchers over the years. People have come and gone. From 2010-2015 more than 40 licensed visiting and community-based scientific research projects in the health, physical and social sciences have been conducted in Arviat alone (Nunavut Research Institute, 2010-2016). This also includes several arts education, filmmaking and literacy initiatives. How many projects have left the community truly better off? Who benefits from research and who makes this determination? To what extent do the youth who are our participants see real benefits from research?

There have been some benefits; in many cases, part-time jobs have been created, and new skills developed, particularly through a wide range of youth participatory action research projects. Examples of successful research partnerships in the community have included the Nanisiniq Arviat History Project, Housing, Home and Routine with the School of Social Work, University of British Columbia; Overcoming Isolation and Deepening Social Connectedness with the Samuel Family Foundation, Synergos Institute, TakingITGlobal and Special Olympics International; and the Arviat Youth Art and Film Sexual Health interventions with the Government of Nunavut Department of Health, the Hamlet of Arviat and the University of Toronto.

There are other tangible benefits where youth are afforded opportunities to gain hands-on, early career exposure to the different types of work available in research. It’s also about overcoming isolation and deepening social connectedness. In Arviat, significant efforts are made to encourage the establishment of lasting relationships; meaningful social connections between researchers and youth participants that live on long after the formal research has finished. .

Precarity and sustainability are themes often expressed but rarely addressed in many of the community’s research projects. Once the data is collected or the report is written, researchers typically leave the community. One of the insights we have had is that research can influence individuals and communities in unexpected ways that are neither intended nor measured. Much of this can be positive; people may gain new skills, opportunities, new relationships and connections; new ways of understanding of themselves and community. But the unintended consequences of research can also be negative. Some of this comes from clashes of worldviews that outsiders may not be aware of and neither community members nor researchers may understand. For example, we have seen problems arise when some community members are given opportunities to work on projects while others are not. While the researchers may feel that they are making a positive contribution by providing opportunities for community members, opportunities for some (not all) can create conflict in collectivist cultures. Western researchers may not recognize this issue; they may not know to look.

There are also issues when research ends. What happens when the research funding has been expended, the work ends and visiting researchers return to their home institutions in the south? What becomes of the transferable skills and experiences developed through participation in these projects? It is important for researchers to consider what the communities they work with are left with in terms of capability and how communities can be empowered to leverage those investments to continue expressing its goals of self- reliance and self-determination.