The bureaucratisation of ethics

Why are ethics applications so difficult?

When Mark* sought ethics approval for his honours thesis on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander politics, he found the University’s response rejecting his proposal “condescending” and “dismissive”. Ethics committees play an integral part in any university’s research ecosystem. Yet for many honours and masters level students unfamiliar with the world of academia, submitting an ethics application can be an opaque and challenging process.

At the University of Sydney, all research that involves human participants must be approved by one of the Human Research Ethics Committees (HRECs). The committees are made up of academics across a range of disciplines, along with medical and legal professionals, and lay-people. According to Professor Glen Davis, an expert in sports medicine and chair of one of the University’s three HRECs, the main role of such committees is to ensure that projects are consistent with the National Statement on Ethical Conduct in Human Research, developed by the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC).

The NHMRC’s statement is the main guideline by which research ethics applications are assessed in Australia. As well as highlighting procedures that researchers and universities should follow to ensure ethical requirements have been met, the guidelines also list certain groups of people to whom specific ethical considerations might apply, such as Indigenous people and children.

Ethics committees have good reason to tread carefully, particularly when research has the potential to deal with such vulnerable groups. Indeed, it is integral that research is conducted in a non-coercive manner, so that subjects are treated with respect and dignity. Nonetheless, a consequence of this caution is the potential to place onerous burdens on researchers and academics. According to Meena*, a researcher in public health at UNSW, ethics committees often take an “overly bureaucratic” approach to qualitative research dealing with so-called vulnerable groups. “Any time you’ll approach a group that’s culturally diverse, they’re [the HRECs] waiting to pounce”.

In Mark’s case, this meant that his application was rejected on the grounds that both he and his supervisor lacked sufficient connection to the particular Indigenous community he wanted to study. Davis rejects the claim that ethics committees place more rigorous requirements on research dealing with various vulnerable groups, but admits that there is “extra scaffolding” put in place by the NHMRC guidelines that they must consider. “There are issues historically in Australia [regarding Indigenous people] … that often some kinds of research has been what I would call ‘fly-in-fly-out’ research.” Nevertheless, Davis emphasises that only about 3 per cent of research proposals receive an outright rejection by the Committee. In most cases, the HREC will raise questions for the researcher to answer to either the chair or the full committee.

Yet this process can be cumbersome and time-consuming, particularly for large and complex projects. According to Meena, the constant back and forth between researcher and committee underscores a process that is “more about saying the right thing and ticking boxes” than “protecting the weak”. In particular, Meena believes that many of the questions asked during ethics applications also highlight a lack of understanding by committees of the mechanics of how certain types of research, such as qualitative, ethnographic and cross-cultural research, work.

However, Davis maintains that his committee is “a fairly broad church”, with representatives from a range of fields from medicine to the social sciences. Additionally, all applications are reviewed by two people with expertise in the relevant area.

Yet despite their good intentions, HRECs do not necessarily have a greater claim to the interests of vulnerable groups than the academics trying to research them. While the NHMRC’s guidelines contain a specific section on research involving Indigenous participants, as well as a number of requirements for the composition of HRECs, the committees are not mandated to have an Indigenous member. Despite this, Davis’ committee includes an Indigenous academic. “There’s no rule [but] the chairs are aware of this, and try to seek broad representation”

Ultimately, researchers and committees both want to see good quality research that deals with subjects in sensitive ways. When asked whether difficulties might arise when dealing with research concerning vulnerable groups, Davis says;  “I wouldn’t call it more difficult, I’d call it more considered, more thoughtful”. Nonetheless, as the NHMRC guidelines continue to evolve over time, consideration should be given to the potential for valid research to be stifled in bureaucratic quagmire.

*Names have been changed