Life as a Research Ethicist is an interesting one but does require repeated explanation or justification to those who engage in research. The first area for clarification is that there is a clear distinction between the role of a clinical or practice ethicist, who might spend time ruminating on important ethical issues in practice situations, and the role of the Research Ethicist. Whilst many of the principles underpinning decision-making in both fields might be similar, there are also unique issues that separate the different approaches to ethics.
The second area for clarification is that Research Ethicists are not the research police. They do not spend their time seeking out new and innovative ways to stop research from happening or to make the conduct of research as difficult as possible. Research Ethicists are those who spend much of their time considering the positive way in which research can and should be conducted, often using a set of ethical principles as their toolkit.
What often makes ethical decision-making in research so complex, is that what is usually considered right is not right in all contexts. There are generally accepted rules for the ethical conduct of research but there are also massive grey areas that have to be navigated by both researchers and Research Ethicists. This navigation can result in very different applications of ethical rules and norms in different contexts. What might seem perfectly reasonable and ethical in one situation might be deemed unethical in a different situation.
Unfortunately, it remains the case that too many researchers, in all disciplines and in all areas of research, still treat consideration of research ethics, and the requirement to seek research ethics approval, as a unnecessary inconvenience. As a consequence, they spend too little time and effort in exploring the important ethical issues and how these might be managed. Whilst there has been considerable improvement over the past couple of decades, especially in the social sciences, the benefits to both researchers and research participants of due consideration of research ethics has still not been universally accepted.
Many who are involved in research do appreciate that spending time considering the ethical implications of a research project can help to ensure the most appropriate design for that research. For example, whilst all researchers want to recruit as quickly as possible, false expectations can be created if the ethical implications of recruitment are not considered in an honest and realistic manner. As a Research Ethics Committee (REC) Chair, I know that the most common reason for the submission of protocol amendments is poor recruitment. In most instances, the cause of the poor recruitment was predictable.
Research Ethicists should be playing more of a role in advising on the conduct of research from as early in the design of the research as possible. Most researchers who plan to undertake detailed statistical analysis will seek advise from a trained statistician who will advise on matters such as sample size and data analysis. Research Ethicists should be engaged in a similar way to advise on research ethics. They should be invited to contribute to the design of research projects, offering expertise on what might be possible from an ethical stance. Like statisticians, it is essential that Research Ethicists aren’t invited to advise on research projects when it is too late. How many statisticians struggle to analyse data because they don’t have the volume or quality of data they need.
An inevitable consequence of engaging Research Ethicists as early as possible this is that navigating the necessary research ethics approvals should also be more straightforward and should result in more timely completion of the proposed research.
One warning is that ethical advise given is only as good as the person giving it. I highlight this because I am aware of one large national research project where they have employed someone to advise on research ethics but it is clear that that individual lacked the necessary knowledge and experience. The result was avoidable delays in progressing the research which wouldn’t have happened with the appropriate ethical support and advise from the outset.
Research has real potential to change people’s lives and this will be achieved in a more timely manner if due consideration is given to research ethics from the inception of the proposed research, through planning and into the conduct of the research. This might be best achieved with the involvement of those with considerable knowledge and experience of research ethics … the Research Ethicists.