• Sustainability
  • DE&I
  • Pandemic
  • Finance
  • Legal
  • Technology
  • Regulatory
  • Global
  • Pricing
  • Strategy
  • R&D/Clinical Trials
  • Opinion
  • Executive Roundtable
  • Sales & Marketing
  • Executive Profiles
  • Leadership
  • Market Access
  • Patient Engagement
  • Supply Chain
  • Industry Trends

The Harms of ‘Helicopter Research’ in the Life Sciences

Pharmaceutical ExecutivePharmaceutical Executive: October 2023
Volume 44
Issue 10

How pharma companies can make justice and integrity a priority.

During my time leading diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) efforts around the world, in particular in the life sciences industry, one of the things that has always stayed top of mind and close to my heart is the human element in scientific research.

Science is seen as objective, and, yes, it is indeed known as the pursuit of truth. It is our collective journey to better understand human life and our world and, in turn, propose new and innovative solutions to the problems that society faces. However, in this journey there have, unfortunately, been many tragic stories of people and communities left behind, disregarded, or exploited. Behind countless experiments, studies, and discoveries are actions that have caused irreparable harm and exacerbated inequity for communities all around the world.

The root cause of many of these failures of ethics, shared humanity, and global citizenship is what is known as “helicopter research.” Any organization that places great value on global DE&I—in addition to the belief in the transformative power of science for all—should be committed to first acknowledging the harms of helicopter research. It is only once we acknowledge the problem that we can work collectively to solve it.

According to a 2020 research paper, titled Global Soil Science Research Collaboration in the 21st Century: Time to End Helicopter Research, published in Geoderma: “Helicopter research, parachute research, or neo-colonial research are synonymous terms which describe situation where researchers from wealthier countries… fly to a developing country, collect data and specimens, fly out, [analyze] the data and specimens elsewhere, and publish the results with little involvement from local scientists.”

In 1996, for example, Nigeria experienced one of the worst meningitis epidemics in its history. During this time, Pfizer proceeded with a clinical trial of the antibiotic Trovan, which it tested on a sample of around 200 infant children as young as three months. Eleven children who participated in the trial were dead after a month and other children who took part in it experienced liver failure and developed major disabilities, according to a 2000 article in The Washington Post. A number of parents reported not being told that the drug was experimental and others shared that they had enrolled their children in the trial with the expectation that they would receive the standard medication that was being administered at a nearby hospital.

Helicopter research is a key reason why many non-dominant groups still harbor feelings of fear and skepticism around scientific inquiries and interventions (e.g., clinical trials). This hinders the purpose of the research itself to be truly representative and accurate.

It’s important that science-based companies find ways to invest in more intentional, ethical, and collaborative ways to conduct research across geographical, cultural, and social boundaries. Human connections and trust-building are important first steps in creating mutually beneficial relationships that unite and advance the scientific community rather than further divide and push groups of people to the periphery. We can come together with a vision for a scientific field that makes integrity and justice a priority.

Here are three ways for companies to carry out that mission:

  • Form meaningful and equal partnerships with science academies, universities, and local non-profit organizations in Asia and Africa through targeted outreach—purposefully challenging the historical patterns of exploitation and mistreatment. That means creating synergistic and win-win opportunities among scientific institutions around the world. It also means leading more culturally sensitive and effective research projects, accelerating our collective advancement through transparent knowledge exchange and credit-sharing, and receiving constructive input at every stage of the research process from local community experts.
  • Hire and empower brilliant minds from all around the world and of all backgrounds, identities, and lived experiences. We have to recognize that the scientific changemakers of today must be a multicultural and global cohort of thinkers and specialists.
  • Invest in community-driven projects with a core focus of producing tangible, positive impacts for groups experiencing marginalization. Not assuming what matters most or what will make the greatest difference, but facilitating dialogues that help to inform and evolve our strategy.

We are at a point where society is increasingly expecting global companies to leverage their influence and resources to go beyond mere profits to truly investing in making a #betterworld.

Smita Pillai is Global Chief Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion Officer, Regeneron

Related Videos
Related Content