Don't rock the research boat

January 11, 2002

In fear oflitigation and oftarnished reputations, universities have developed an obsession with ethics that is harming research, argues Frank Furedi.

A colleague based at a London university was fuming with rage. Her funded project had been held up by a research ethics committee for the past seven weeks. "They began with small quibbles about methodology," she said, "but now they are acting as if it is their project." This experienced qualitative researcher was worried and scared. "For heaven's sake, don't mention my name," she told me when I told her about my plan to write an article on the subject of research ethics committees.

My interest in the subject was first raised when I discovered that in some British universities even undergraduates involved in final-year research projects need to gain the approval of their ethics committee.

Ethics committees are one of those bureaucratic devices that emerge out of nowhere, appear to be harmless, even desirable, but that gradually expand their role and turn into an intrusive and potentially coercive institution. It is at our peril that we underestimate the threat they pose to our freedom to pursue research.

The Economic and Social Research Council's guidelines on the subject indicate that the ESRC "has a special obligation towards the general public and academic community to try to ensure that the research it funds will not give rise to distress or annoyance to individuals". At first sight, an unobjectionable sentiment. But a significant body of social science research is oriented towards the investigation of controversial subjects. No doubt, some people will be annoyed, possibly even distressed by the findings of some of this research. Does that make it unethical? Should this research be denied public funding? Sadly, the ESRC believes that it has the right to dictate what can and cannot be done. According to the guidelines, the ESRC "reserves the right to impose special conditions on any awards involving particular ethical issues".

One reason why the United Kingdom's academic community has not been concerned about the role of ethics committees is that organisations such as the ESRC have been relatively restrained in their intervention. But with many universities busy setting up local ethics committees, it is only a matter of time before academics are confronted with restrictions on their freedom to pursue research. The growing preoccupation of universities with risk assessment, litigation and auditing bodies suggests that there is considerable potential for local ethics committees to adopt a highly interventionist role. The experience of our colleagues across the Atlantic indicates that these concerns can have a corrosive impact on the exercise of academic freedom.

In the United States, institutional review boards (IRBs) play an active role in overseeing research involving human subjects. In many universities, the IRB claims jurisdiction not only over social science research but also work carried out in the humanities, in disciplines such as history, religion and literature. Numerous public disputes indicate that local IRBs have adopted a highly interventionist role and sometimes insist on monitoring research. Linda Shapes, a past president of the Oral History Association, has publicly complained about the problems her discipline has with IRBs. She takes exception to demands for standardised questionnaires and to requests that scholars warn their subjects about stressful questions. Some IRBs are even touchy about archival material on the grounds that it deals with the activities of human beings.

The IRB system was set up in the USto ensure that all universities receiving government funds monitored research activities involving human beings. But the reviewing process does not affect only projects funded through government grants. The statute requires that any university receiving public funds must ensure that all research, if carried out with private or personal funds, be reviewed for the sake of the human subject. Richard Shweder, a cultural anthropologist and professor of human development at the University of Chicago, believes that the real problem is that "universities tend to be terrified at the prospect of a freeze of flow of federal money or even the prospect of an audit". He claims that, as a result, universities act more conservatively than the law requires. Shweder believes that it is a "violation of academic freedom to be required to submit questions one might ask in privately funded research for prior scrutiny and approval by a review board serving in a quasi-governmental function". He is worried about the fact that journalists have a "greater freedom to ask questions of human beings than do social science researchers at 'free universities'".

Shweder's views are echoed by numerous prominent American social scientists who believe that the research they conducted in the 1960s would not be approved by today's IRBs. The eminent sociologist Howard Becker, for example, was reported as stating that, if his ethnographic projects should ever be challenged, he would claim that they were not research but conceptual art. Why? Because universities do not hassle artists. Unfortunately, young academics embarking on their careers have little choice but to put up with review bodies policing their work.

Research-ethics committees justify their existence on the grounds that they have an important role to play in protecting the human subjects of research. Certainly, this argument makes sense in relation to biomedical research, where such review bodies originated. And everyone can agree that academics have a responsibility to ensure that the people they study are treated with dignity and respect. It is also important that academics exercise great care in dealing with children and vulnerable sections of society. Unfortunately, ethics committees today treat vulnerability as the defining characteristic of the human condition. As a result, there is a growing tendency to regard research as risky and as a potentially dangerous activity.

"Is research-ethics review a moral panic?" asks Will C. Van Den Hoonard in a recent edition of The Canadian Review of Sociology and Anthropology . He suggests that "ethics-review bodies can overstate risks" in order to create an incentive for regulation and monitoring. There is little doubt that the transformation of research into a risky enterprise provides British research-ethics committees with a justification for their role as moral gatekeepers.

Ethics committees are particularly troublesome for academics involved in qualitative research. The people we research are not just passive human subjects but participants in an open-ended enterprise. Their reactions and insights shape the subsequent direction of our work. I have always found that my research moves in unexpected directions and towards issues that were not previously anticipated. It is difficult to work out all the relevant questions in advance and, of course, it is not evident which kind of queries prove to be stressful or annoying to the participant prior to the experience. That is why researchers need the freedom to improvise and change direction in response to problems and issues thrown up in the course of their work. Research-ethics reviews tend to inhabit a different intellectual universe. They feel most comfortable with standardised questionnaires and clear-cut designs. They are drawn towards methodologies that minimise uncertainty and risk. Aside from the question of academic freedom, they encourage boring, conformist research.

Of course, many ethics committees are inhabited by sensitive and intelligent people. Who could possibly object to such individuals reviewing the ethics of someone's research? I do. It is quite right that ethical issues are debated, but to police research in the name of ethics is another matter. It is worth remembering that such review bodies are not in the business of discussing the finer points of ethics. They are concerned with issues such as risk, litigation, the reputation of a university and the management of research. In practice, they are not so much an ethics committee, as bureaucratic gatekeepers who use ethics as a managerial ideology.

Frank Furedi is professor of sociology at the University of Kent at Canterbury.

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