Scientists are becoming more open to using traditional knowledge in their research, but they must work more closely with indigenous people and use data sharing practices that work in both directions, says Henry P. Huntington, Arctic science director for the Pew Environment Group in the United States.
In the Arctic, where efforts to understand the effects of climate are urgent, traditional knowledge has received increased attention over the past few decades, says Huntington. Physical data are lacking in the region, but indigenous cultures have retained practices and knowledge acquired over centuries.
Growing political action by indigenous peoples has led to increased recognition of the importance of their knowledge, and scientists are coming to recognise its value.
There are several collaborations between researchers and local people in the Arctic. For example, Sami reindeer herders work with scientists to document snow conditions and study what they suggest about herding practices under future climate conditions. And in 2007, the North Pacific Research Board allocated US$1 million to traditional-knowledge research.
But more needs to be done, says Huntington, beginning with scientists initiating interactions with local populations, which should involve developing appropriate methods for documentation and collaboration.
Although scientists must be sensitive to local populations, they should not refrain from closely examining traditional knowledge and its sources for fear of political correctness — this is needed to establish credibility.
They must also work together with indigenous peoples to find new ways of gathering traditional knowledge. A successful example is the use of Global Positioning System units by hunters in Nunavut, Canada, to record their experiences as they travel. "These forward-looking approaches ... should be supported by the same agencies that fund other scientific endeavours," writes Huntington.
Finally, he argues, better ways of managing the information are needed. Tools such as maps, videos and data-tagging are much more suitable than spreadsheets for recording traditional knowledge.