SUNY Downstate Leads Call To End ‘Domestic Helicopter Research,’ Advocating for Equity-Centered Collaborations

By SUNY Downstate Press Office | Apr 29, 2024

New Study Published in Cell by SUNY Downstate Researchers Calls for More Equitable Collaborations and Lasting Community Benefits

BROOKLYN, NY – SUNY Downstate Health Sciences University today announced the publication of a new study in Cell titled “Ending Domestic Helicopter Research.” Led by SUNY Downstate associate vice president for Research Strategy and Operations W. Marcus Lambert, Ph.D., and co-authors, Student Affairs assistant dean and Community Health Sciences assistant professor Marlene Camacho-Rivera, Sc.D., MS, MPH; Institutional Equity associate vice president Carla Boutin-Foster, M.D., MSc.; Medicine Department chair and Nephrology Division chief Moro O. Salifu, M.D., MBA, MPH, MACP; and SUNY Downstate president Wayne J. Riley, M.D., MPH, MBA, MACP, the commentary examines the detrimental effects of ‘domestic helicopter research.’ This long-standing practice involves researchers from more privileged institutions or companies conducting studies in or collecting data about systemically marginalized communities with little to no involvement of local researchers or community members.

Domestic helicopter research often exploits communities, such as those of Indigenous Peoples, Black, or Latine groups, as well as resource-limited institutions (RLIs), which are institutions that hold an average of less than $50 million per year of federal funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Frequently, these RLIs have strong historical ties to disinvested communities but are not given the same financial support as wealthier institutions, thereby limiting the long-term impact of community-academic partnerships.

The study advocates for more equitable research practices that ensure local institutional and community involvement. “Our findings highlight the need for research collaborations that are not only inclusive but also respectful of the assets of local communities and beneficial to the communities involved,” said Dr. Lambert. “It’s about shifting the research paradigm to one that prioritizes equitable and sustainable collaborations over grant dollars.”

“This study is a testament to Downstate’s firm dedication to cultivating research endeavors that incorporate academic rigor and are deeply rooted in principles of justice, ethics, and community-centeredness,” said President Riley. “It serves as a poignant reminder of the imperative to reevaluate and transform the methodologies and priorities of research, ensuring that our collective efforts unequivocally and globally serve the betterment of humanity. The team’s work outlines strategies to curb the practice of domestic helicopter research and promotes the adoption of models that support genuine and mutually beneficial partnerships.”

“This study serves as a clarion call for the research community to recognize its pivotal role in advancing social justice and to urge transformation about how research is conducted to ensure that the interests and community voices are met,” said Dr. Salifu. “By prioritizing the voices and needs of marginalized communities, research becomes a powerful catalyst for change, illuminating the path towards a more equitable and inclusive future.”

The researchers’ contributions stem partially from the $10M John Lewis NIMHD Research Endowment Grant awarded to SUNY Downstate by the NIH in 2023. This grant aims to facilitate the recruitment and training of health equity researchers from underrepresented groups in the biomedical sciences. With the additional funding received last year, Downstate has expanded six research training programs and launched four new initiatives to address the pressing health inequities prevalent in Brooklyn communities.

“Our findings emphasize the critical importance of research partnerships that respect the dignity and resources of communities that have been historically marginalized, ensuring their meaningful participation and mutual benefit for all partners involved,” said Marlene Camacho-Rivera, Sc.D., MS, MPH. “In doing so, we can pave the way for research endeavors to advance scientific knowledge and foster genuine empowerment and equity within communities.”

“To foster equity-centered research, we must challenge existing power dynamics and prioritize community inclusion and empowerment,” said Carla Boutin-Foster, M.D., MSc. “Ending domestic helicopter research could revolutionize science and medicine, and this study highlights concrete steps towards achieving that goal.”

With the publication of this study, SUNY Downstate builds on its contributions to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) practices in universities and healthcare centers. Downstate provides training, seminars, and workshops to all school affiliates to foster DEI and has implemented educational programs to tackle structural racism and health inequities. Downstate has long-standing partnerships with community-based organizations such as the Arthur Ashe Institute for Urban Health to achieve health equity through quality care, education, research, and community empowerment efforts.

The complete study can be accessed HERE. 


About SUNY Downstate Health Sciences University
Downstate Health Sciences University in Brooklyn is one of four academic health centers (AMCs) in The State University of New York (SUNY) 64-campus system and the only SUNY AMC in New York City dedicated to health education, research, and patient care for the borough’s 2.7 million residents. Its flagship hospital, University Hospital at Downstate (UHD), is a teaching hospital and benefits from the expertise of Downstate’s exceptional medical school and world-class academic center research facilities. With a staff of over 800 physicians representing 53 specialties and subspecialties, Downstate offers comprehensive healthcare services to the community.

 UHD provides high-risk neonatal and infant services, pediatric nephrology, and dialysis for kidney diseases and is the only kidney transplantation program in Brooklyn. Beyond its clinical expertise, Downstate houses a range of esteemed educational institutions, including its College of Medicine, College of Nursing, School of Health Professions, School of Graduate Studies, and School of Public Health. Downstate fosters innovation through numerous extramurally funded research labs and programs and through its multifaceted biotechnology initiative, the Biotechnology Incubator and BioBAT, which support early-stage and more mature biotech companies.