Whistleblowers: Ethics body throws out North Staffs research

October 25, 2002

The research ethics watchdog has criticised the poor standard of students' research proposals from universities in the North Staffordshire area, almost six months after The THES reported that Staffordshire University had been conducting research without proper ethical approval.

The North Staffordshire Local Research Ethics Committee says in its annual report this month that it was forced to throw out eight of the 19 student research proposals it had received from local universities because of "poor design", which it blamed on inadequate supervision of students. The report says the committee has written to health school deans in the region demanding improvements, and confirms that a "useful" meeting has been held with Staffordshire University to discuss its problems.

The THES reported in May that Staffordshire University's academic ethics committee had warned in December 2001 that projects that required ethical approval were "either going out of the university without it, or being undertaken without appropriate scrutiny". It said this could become "a serious issue - if anything untoward were to happen or should there be any media interest".

The university said at the time that the problems had only concerned approval mechanisms at the university-wide level, and that it had had formal procedures at school and field level for some time. But The THES found that Staffordshire's school-level procedures had been implemented inconsistently, and that it had taken 18 months for some schools to implement new rules.

It also emerged that a volunteer who had participated in a project by a Staffordshire postgraduate student had instructed solicitors to ensure that the university investigated his complaints about the conduct of the project, which he claims was ethically flawed. His solicitor declined to comment this week, as the case, first raised in October 2001, is ongoing.

The local research ethics committee report says in its annual report this month that it is "concerned about the quality of student proposals" and that the problem seemed to be due to a "lack of supervision within the universities". It has met representatives of Staffordshire's school of health to discuss the problem, and has written to other health school deans urging improvements.

Teeranlall Ramgopal, dean of Staffordshire's School of Health, said: "Where problems have been identified, they are being addressed."

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