We're not elephants

October 7, 2005

Mark Israel wonders why ethics committees treat researchers like dangerous, clumsy beasts

In 2001, an Australian social scientist was awarded a national competitive grant to study sexual assault in a jurisdiction more than 1,600km from her home. The university, acting on advice from its legal officer and from the grant-awarding body, refused to release funds until the project received ethics approval.

Without resources, my colleague couldn't conduct preliminary research for the project, which was necessary to fashion the plan that the ethics committee wanted to see.

In addition, she needed to consult legal and quasi-legal officials on how the research would be conducted. This all had to be done in a sensitive manner in light of the politically and emotionally charged nature of the research.

Although the project was eventually approved and the university's research ethics policies were overhauled, the bureaucracy slowed the process and cost the researcher time and money.

Reports from bodies such as the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Ethics Special Working Committee in Canada and the American Association of University Professors identify a gulf between what social scientists regard as ethical practice and the practices required by research ethics bureaucracies. They point to two problems, one at national level and one at local.

First, national guidelines and regulations such as Australia's National Statement, Canada's Tri-Council Policy Statement and the relevant parts of the US Code of Federal Regulations have emerged from bioethics, drawing on codes dealing with human experimentation. They have been poorly suited to inductive, qualitative and participatory methodologies in the social sciences.

Second, social scientists have to seek clearance from local committees whose members may lack familiarity with, or even respect for, well-established traditions in the field.

Indeed, some committees appear to treat researchers as if they might turn into rogue elephants, and fence them in with formalised processes to minimise harm, safeguard confidentiality and assure informed consent.

Researchers argue that these policies are paternalistic, unsupported by the relevant methodological or ethical literature and incapable of achieving any of their espoused goals. Worse, some researchers have found that committees refuse to accept questioning of their policies.

Some of my Australian colleagues complain that committees have "gone feral" and that good ethical research is being blocked by poor ethics governance.

No one benefits from working in such an adversarial environment. British social scientists had every reason to be nervous about the Economic and Social Research Council's research ethics framework, particularly one that requires institutions to comply to be eligible for ESRC money.

However, we - I include myself as I have strong links with the UK - have been fortunate. The framework, published in July, has avoided many of the traps that have bedevilled North American and Australian regulations.

For example, arrangements can be made to allow ethical review after funding has been released. Committees will have to have the methodological and area-specific expertise necessary to review proposals and should be sensitive to the context within which research is being conducted.

The framework recognises that there may be occasions when signed consent forms or parental consent are unnecessary or when covert research or research that harms the interests of the research subjects is appropriate.

In contrast, criminologists in North America and Australasia have had long-running disputes with research ethics committees over the wisdom of requiring parental consent or signed consent forms for research with illicit drug users or gang members.

But we can still expect arguments over some key matters - what is or is not research, what are the proper levels of confidentiality and what constitutes minimal risk for the purposes of expedited review.

It remains unclear how research will be monitored after the initial review, how quickly postgraduate projects can be reviewed and how multiple committees will review projects.

Perhaps the biggest hostage to fortune is the limited attention that the framework pays to how institutions might foster the development of ethical practice rather than bureaucratic compliance.

Sadly, in any discussion formulated around the feral and the rogue, this can be easily overlooked.

Mark Israel is a professor in the School of Law, Flinders University, Adelaide, Australia. He is the author of Ethics and the Governance of Criminological Research in Australia , 2004.

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