Sunday, 16 December 2012

Ethics committees

Every piece of university research involving humans has to go through an ethical approval process, typically handled by a committee.
History shows plenty of examples of horrendous research on humans. So surely ethics committees must be good things? Mmm... I am not convinced.
Ethics committees check every piece of research for problems before it starts. This is not the only approach to prevention. Some transactions on your local high street may be deceptive, but trading standards bodies do not check every transaction before allowing it. Closer to home, there is a danger of fraudulent research, but we do not check every piece of research for fraudulence. Instead we deal with problems by after-the-event sanctions and trust them to have incentive effects.
Scholars studying political oversight of bureaucracies talk about “police patrols” versus “fire alarms”. Police patrols check things ex ante; fire alarms go off only when there is a problem – for example, when a constituent or lobbyist raises a complaint. Police patrols have their advantages, but they can be massively expensive and cumbersome. Ethics committees are police patrols.
As well as imposing transaction costs, there is a danger that ethics committees go beyond their remit and try to control what research gets done. Ought their terms of reference not stop this? Perhaps in theory. In practice, often the ethical risks of a particular experiment must be weighed against the benefit of the research. But this is a backdoor, which allows committees to consider what is good and bad research.
The (nice and helpful) people on my last panel assured me that many researchers found that discussions with them improved their research design. Undoubtedly that was indeed true, but it is just the problem. If you are having that kind of discussion with a body which can allow or ban your research, then you have lost the ability to judge for yourself what research is worth doing. The benefits accruing to perhaps to 99% of researchers will be outweighed by the loss from the 1% with an innovative idea that, like many such ideas, meets resistance from the status quo.
In Germany, there are essentially no ethical review requirements, at least for social science research. I strongly suspect that a sample of German research and UK or US research would find no statistically significant difference in the level of ethics violations. Ironically, I can find  no evidence base for the positive effect of ethical review on the ethical quality of social science (though there seems to be plenty on its effects on speed of research etc.)
As I have brought up the German case, you may now wish to mention Nazi medical “research” and Josef Mengele, perhaps the wickedest pseudo-scientist in history. Be careful with that argument. Do you really think that the problem with Mengele was insufficient oversight by an ethics committee? The Nazis would have controlled the committee too, because they had taken over German universities. One reason they were able to do so, I suspect, was that German academia were highly centralized and authoritarian. So, if you want to protect academia against the effects of tyranny, make sure it is decentralized and free. Ethical review processes may risk doing the reverse.
(PS: the new Essex Social Science Experimental Laboratory will scrupulously follow the University’s ethical guidelines, and all research conducted in it will have passed ethical review, as well as the Lab’s own strict rules banning deception. These are just my personal opinions.)