Skip to main content

Using community-based participatory research to increase knowledge of Arctic processes and provide research benefits to Indigenous Peoples

June 27, 2019


Sydney Leek

There is general consensus that Arctic research is insufficient in many areas. One notable area is the relative lack of data on Arctic wildlife populations, a subject that is vastly important to both the environment and humans. In fisheries research, “very little is known about fish population sizes, movements, stock dynamics and recruitment, or interactions between fish species and their habitat and prey.” In marine mammal population research, “knowledge of abundance consisted of a single point estimate with large uncertainty… For cetaceans, trend data were available for 5 of 19 beluga subpopulations, 0 of 11 narwhal subpopulations, and 2 of 4 bowhead subpopulations.” Subjects such as ice levels, water levels, contaminants, permafrost, weather and other climate patterns would also greatly benefit from more comprehensive monitoring.

Arctic research field studies are expensive and difficult to conduct, which has the consequences of many studies only being conducted at irregular intervals and only collecting pinpoints of data. These constraints make Arctic research difficult, where continuous data is necessary to keep up with trends that climate change is accelerating. The Arctic Climate Impact Assessment (ACIA) identified general deficiencies in research on sub-regional impacts, socioeconomic impacts and vulnerabilities within areas and ecosystems. The ACIA called for research improvements in the following areas:

  1. Long-Term Monitoring – Increasing the amount of areas and subjects with long-term monitoring studies, which at present are very limited.
  2. Process Studies – Better understanding the processes that drive Arctic weather, climate and ecosystems by identifying and linking trends.
  3. Modeling – Processing and combining data into models to help both scientists and communities visualize trends.
  4. Analysis of Impacts on Society – Better understanding the consequences that climate change will have on Arctic peoples.

What research methods should we employ in the future in order to create a continuous stream of research that can properly monitor and identify quickly changing, Arctic-wide trends? Arctic researchers have to focus both outward and inward in the future. On a smaller scale, research should better monitor specific populations and conditions for the long term. On a larger scale, this research should connect into a network designed to monitor global data trends. Many of these research goals, such as monitoring socioeconomic impacts and sub-regional/local impacts, also show that more collaboration with Indigenous communities will be an important step in improving research. In the future, researchers should utilize Community-Based Participatory Research (CBPR) more often, to increase research and better involve Indigenous peoples. These studies should also become a larger part of Arctic research networks.

Pre-Existing Policy

Current Arctic research has put a lot of focus on increasing the involvement of, and benefit to, Indigenous communities who participate in research, but this goal has come with both successes and continued challenges. A study of Canadian research found that, “More than 70% of our sample felt that research partnerships are at least very beneficial for researchers compared to around 25% who believed they were very beneficial for community partners.” Many Indigenous communities in the study also reported problems of research oversaturation, research not being relevant or helpful to the community, and researchers ignoring communities after studies were completed. Many communities felt burdened by studies that researchers did not design around peoples’ goals and inputs, and that used the knowledge they collected inefficiently. Many researchers have also felt that, “Mechanisms for assessing local impacts and the level of community engagement were tokenistic in nature.” However, at the same time, there is a large desire within the research community to involve Indigenous communities in their research in more meaningful and beneficial ways. Indigenous peoples observe and sophisticatedly understand the environment around them as part of their lifestyle, and this Indigenous knowledge can bring lots of new insight to Arctic processes. The importance of Indigenous knowledge, and its equal and complementary relation to scientific knowledge, is a widely accepted fact among Arctic researchers. Researchers acknowledge both the underutilization of knowledge, and their desire to better cooperate with and benefit Indigenous peoples in future research projects.

Community-Based Participatory Research (CBPR) is the main recommended research method for future studies involving Indigenous peoples. CBPR projects are co-designed and co-researched by the participating Indigenous communities. The communities identify issues to research, assist researchers in data collection, and direct how the data is utilized. Often, the community designs the research topic, which is the main difference between CBPR studies and more traditional research. This research method is much more useful than more traditional top-down research, eliminating many problems that Indigenous peoples identified in the above study, by increasing community engagement and benefit. It “can build bridges between Indigenous and scientific knowledge, build trust between communities and institutionalized science, engage community members in the scientific process, and generate community-oriented data for management decisions.”

More researchers are creating studies around this design recently (see Drawson et al.). Many Arctic research networks and agreements also have ethics or funding guidelines encouraging cooperation with Indigenous communities, and plans for better incorporation of community-based research into their databases. ArcticNet, a Canada-based research network and organization, considers the incorporation of traditional knowledge, training and integration of community members, and knowledge exchange in its research proposal reviews. The Arctic Science Ministerial, a conference designed to strengthen Arctic research, recommends that the integration of Arctic research should include community-based observatories. The Agreement on Enhancing International Arctic Scientific Cooperation, created by the Arctic Council to outline research ethics and goals, recommends the incorporation of traditional knowledge into research planning and utilization, communication between researchers and communities, and participation of community members in scientific activities. However, the more explicit co-development, co-research, and community leadership seen in CBPR projects is not a part of any of these organizations’ mission statements, funding or ethics guidelines. Guidelines, support and funding for CBPR projects specifically should be incorporated into these organizations, at least as a sub-branch, in the future.

Policy Options

Case studies of community-based participatory research and environmental monitoring show their practical benefits for both communities and researchers. CBPR projects foster greater information-sharing and collaboration between researchers and Indigenous peoples, and also produce meaningful, useful research for both parties. Two case studies are the Igliniit Project and IMALIRIJIIT. Both case studies show a community proposing a research project and then working closely with researchers to design the project, collect research and study results.

  1. The Igliniit Project – Researchers gave hunters in the community of Kangiqtugaapik (Clyde River), Nunavut specialized GPS technology in order to help them map hunting trails and record observations. Hunters helped design the study, saying that they wanted research to be generated through practice rather than interviews. University of Calgary students worked closely with Indigenous hunters to produce custom GPS units that could record observations, such as animals and ice features. There also were practical features for recording hazards and harvests, and fun features such as games and music. The community also started mapping garbage dumps, because the government had not been responsive in cleanup efforts. The university then mapped the data they received. The maps helped show potential anomalies that the researchers could then consult with the Indigenous community about. By the end of the project, the community and researchers saw potential applications in “land use studies, wildlife studies, harvest studies, hazards mapping and communication, various types of inventories (e.g., cultural, archaeological) and search and rescue operations” (Gearheard et al.). One issue, though, was that mapping could only be done at the university, decreasing local involvement in some aspects of the project.
  2. IMALIRIJIIT – The Inuit community of Kangiqsualujjuaq in Canada, in response to concerns about an upcoming mining project in its watershed, worked with the Université du Québec a Trois-Rivieres to design a CBPR project that collected data on water quality, contaminants, macroinvertebrates, vegetation, and hydrology. The project was partially funded by local Nunavik organizations. Researchers consulted with the community to decide research goals, people were interviewed to collect research, and some community members were taught how to conduct research (such as how to test samples and add to the interactive map). Both students and elders were involved, with the students learning how to conduct tests through a science camp and elders providing Indigenous knowledge and advice. Hunters were also paid to send in tissue samples to test for contaminants. “Ice-breakers” and community-building were also a large part of the project. The project was largely successful, both in terms of data collection and in increasing local interest in science. The main concern afterwards was how to sustain the project, which will probably best be done by engaging adults as well as students in future years.

These case studies show that CBPR projects come with both successes and challenges. The successes include greater collaboration and utilization of Indigenous knowledge for both researchers and communities, and positive experiences between researchers and communities. The challenges include the perceived legitimacy of studies in general research and politics, building trust with communities, and sustainability. CBPR projects are also not well connected to more mainstream research networks, meaning that there is little data-sharing.  There have not been studies on the accuracy of these projects either. The legitimacy of CBPR projects is not well-established, but it would benefit the research community greatly to study and use these research methods more in the future. CBPR projects make research relevant and helpful to the communities they interview. Community members also appreciate when engaging in traditional activities such as hunting can be used for co-research, both increasing community involvement and supplementing participants’ incomes. The more equal, cooperative involvement of both sides also arguably leads to friendlier interactions and smoothes the road for future collaboration and research. Also, when stake-holders participate in research, the research produces “more trusted and likely-to-be-applied results.” CBPR projects also eliminate issues of data misuse and imbalances between researcher and community objectives, because the community decides these elements of their projects from the start. CBPR projects help unlock the most potential out of Indigenous knowledge and local monitoring, and provide the most benefit to the community.

Policy Recommendations

CBPR projects greatly benefit communities by letting them set research priorities and participate in science, steps in research that they were previously excluded from. Localized studies and data can also have applications such as policy recommendations, animal tracking, weather and ice safety, and search and rescue. Better incorporating community-based research stations into global research networks would also greatly help researchers track global trends that are otherwise very difficult to monitor. For example, researchers could reduce major gaps in animal population knowledge if they worked more with communities to study the animals they observe, track, and hunt every day. The same can be said for all other Arctic processes. Arctic communities do not face the same constraints as researchers in terms of travel costs and logistics, and can conduct long-term research much more easily as long as they have the funding and support. Researchers should conduct more CBPR projects in the future; communities should get more funding and support for their own proposed research projects; research networks should create sub-branches to specifically fund and support CBPR projects. These networks should also study and design ethics standards and recommendations for successful collaboration. Researchers have to follow research topics chosen by and important to the community, consult with the community at all stages of research, involve them in data collection and research in meaningful ways, and respect what communities want to do with data and how much they want to release. These standards are necessary if researchers want ethical and mutually beneficial cooperation with Indigenous communities.

Future research should focus on studying and increasing the legitimacy of CBPR projects, so that both Indigenous communities and researchers feel more confident employing this strategy in the future. Many researchers are wary of the accuracy of data collected by community members, so there should be studies and recommendations about how best to collect data using this research method. More research into CBPR studies could increase both its legitimacy and publicity, helping these CBPR studies become more of a norm than an outlier in the methods researchers use when working with communities on research.

The best way to increase CBPR studies will probably be to better support them through Arctic research networks. Many scientists feel that “engaging local communities in research is not typically rewarded and is therefore perceived as an impediment to professional advancement because it lowers productivity.” This perception needs to be changed if researchers want trends toward better Indigenous community involvement to keep advancing. Arctic research networks should create CBPR-specific sub-branches that provide ethics standards, funding, data centralization, liaisons between communities and researchers, and other functions to specifically support CPBR projects and communities conducting research. Although many of these networks provide general ethics guidelines about involving Indigenous peoples, in practice CBPR projects are not rewarded more than other studies, despite their much greater benefits to communities. Since these CBPR studies involve more coordination and give researchers less freedom in some areas, they inevitably become less appealing than studies that researchers can run themselves. Research networks have to specifically incentivize and support CBPR projects if they want the number of projects following ethical, cooperative guidelines to increase. These networks should be a platform to let communities propose research topics, and they should help connect communities to researchers and funding. This would greatly help research networks advance their goals of increasing community involvement in research. It would also help counteract focus on large-scale projects, which can cause the cancellation of small-scale but extremely beneficial community projects.

If research networks better incorporated CBPR projects and community-based observatories, our knowledge of Arctic processes would greatly increase. This effort would also be of benefit to Indigenous communities, allowing them to design research that relates to and helps their community while also supplementing participants’ incomes. The increasing legitimacy of CBPR projects would also increase the legitimacy of Indigenous knowledge, and would probably increase its influence in both research and policy-making. It would greatly benefit researchers, Indigenous communities, and the Arctic region in general if Arctic researchers worked towards creating and consolidating CBPR projects into a global network of Arctic mutual knowledge.



ACIA. 2004. “Impacts of a Warming Arctic: Arctic Climate Impact Assessment”. ACIA Overview report. Cambridge University Press. 140 pp.

Arctic Council. 2017. “Agreement on Enhancing International Arctic Scientific Cooperation”. Arctic Council Archive.

ArcticNet. 2018. “Research Project Review Guidelines”.

Arctic Science Ministerial. 2018. “Joint Statement of Ministers on the Occasion of the Second Arctic Science Ministerial”.

Brunet ND, Hickey GM, Humphries MM. 2016. “Local Participation and Partnership Development in Canada’s Arctic Research: Challenges and Opportunities in an Age of Empowerment and Self-Determination”. Polar Record. 52(3):345-359.

Brunet ND, Hickey GM, Humphries MM. 2014. “Understanding Community-researcher Partnerships in the Natural Sciences: A Case Study from the Arctic.” Journal of Rural Studies 36: 247-61.

Drawson, Alexandra S. S., Elaine J. Toombs, and Christopher J. Mushquash. 2017. “Indigenous Research Methods: A Systematic Review”. International Indigenous Policy Journal 8(2).

Gearheard, S. , Aporta, C. , Aipellee, G. and O’Keefe, K. 2011.  “The Igliniit project: Inuit Hunters Document Life on the Trail to Map and Monitor Arctic Change”. The Canadian Geographer / Le Géographe canadien, 55: 42-55. doi:10.1111/j.1541-0064.2010.00344.x

Gerin-Lajoie, Jose et al. 2018. “IMALIRIJIIT: a Community-Based Environmental Monitoring Program in the George River watershed, Nunavik, Canada”. Ecoscience. Taylor & Francis Ltd.

Laidre, K. L. et al. 2015. “Arctic Marine Mammal Population Status, Sea Ice Habitat Loss, and Conservation Recommendations for the 21st Century”. Conservation Biology, 29: 724-737.

Van Pelt, T.I. et al. 2017. “The Missing Middle: Central Arctic Ocean Gaps in Fishery Research and Science Coordination”. Marine Policy. Elsevier.