Research ethics under the spotlight

How, and under what circumstances, do providers approve the research done by academic staff? James Coe digs into the worlds of research ethics and academic freedom

James Coe is Associate Editor for research and innovation at Wonkhe, and a partner at Counterculture

The amount of research that takes place in UK universities is vast.

There were 157 universities that took part in the REF 2021 exercise. There were 76,000 staff submitted through REF, and 185,000 research outputs submitted. Even this does not represent the total amount of research taking place across the UK.

The UK Government is (at the time of writing) committed to investing £22bn of public funding in research and development – so there is more research to come. A 2020 study by the Intellectual Property Office found that international collaborations are growing, business partnerships are increasing, and of the 947 spinouts incorporated during the period 2000 to 2016, 59 per cent have been incorporated since 2011. Put simply, there is an ever growing number of people, partnerships, and – with a bit of luck – pounds, going into research.

And with this growth comes more scrutiny and more pressure to ensure processes around research ethics are robust

Ethics in theory

The vast majority of research and the vast majority of research partnerships attract little attention. By its nature, research is often about challenging accepted norms to further the sum of human knowledge. It is uncommon that this challenge veers into public controversy. It is even less common that the controversy becomes a challenge to the reputation or integrity of the sector.

In the last two weeks, research has been in the news for questions about oversight of research and partnerships. Firstly, there has been the much-publicised case of Karl Andersson and his paper, as the Telegraph described it, “researching the “shota” genre of Japanese comic books which centre around prepubescent or pubescent male characters depicted in a “suggestive or erotic” manner.” Secondly, earlier this week the Guardian reported that Imperial College London will shut down two research centres with links to Chinese aerospace and defence companies.

There have been a lot of questions asked about research ethics, due process, and the care and attention that needs to be taken when universities are supporting controversial research or partnerships. Historically, controversy has usually arisen where there has seen to be an unacceptable impingement on freedom of speech. This is the opposite of the issue up for debate here. Indeed, following a recent session of the education committee Chair Robert Halfon tweeted

The Times reported that ‘academics attempted to block this newspaper from discovering details about changes to their reading lists’ by using social media to encourage each other not to comply with info requests. Are uni’s acting like the Taliban and choosing to ban books?

Implicitly, these two cases demonstrate that academic freedom cannot ever be absolute.

Ethics in practice

Most, if not all, universities will have a research ethics policy. Usually, these policies will reaffirm that universities will not seek to impinge on academic freedom unless the area of work is legally or ethically complex. Usually, the policy will set out principles that researchers will be expected to be transparent with their work. This is both transparency in setting out to the institution the nature of the research and its objectives, and transparency to any participants on how their insight and data will be used.

If research is particularly controversial or has the potential for significant legal implications, proposals will usually be considered by a research approval committee of some sort. This will interrogate the nature of the research and make a decision on whether it can proceed based on the university’s legal obligations and appetite for risk. Again, academics have protections to pursue the things which interest them but institutions will balance this against contractual obligations, and wider legal concerns.

Put simply, universities generally take a risk based approach. A researcher working in the deepest end of theoretical physics with no participants and little practical application will likely require little ethical oversight. On the other hand, a sociologist looking at the impact of public policy on vulnerable people through using structured interviews would likely first discuss this with a manager who may refer their work to a departmental or university wide approval process. Research on weapons, or research with clear dual use capabilities, is likely to receive even greater scrutiny and often will be considered by the most senior research, compliance, and legal staff members.

Often, supervisors will be responsible for the output of their students and be expected to undertake an assessment of any risks. This will usually be done through an initial assessment at interview, and then through ongoing discussions with supervisees as part of the work.

Business partnerships are usually dealt with slightly differently. Typically, academics would work with professional services colleagues who provide a risk assessment on the appropriateness of the partnership. Again, most will be local and low risk, and legal teams will become more involved depending on the size of the risk of any partnership.

And where it goes wrong

There has already been much debate on why specific cases have led to public outcry and government intervention. The checks and balances of research ethics may largely fall down across three areas.

For example, there are risks where activity is taking place outside of the sight of the institutions’ usual processes. After all, universities often employ thousands of academics, researchers, and PhD students, all of whom are at different stages of work on thousands of projects. It is difficult to keep an eye on everything when the volume of work is so enormous. This is compounded when a staff member or student isn’t obviously a staff member or student. Being an associate, fellow, honorary member, and so on gives someone an affiliation to a university, with the reputational harm that this can bring, but without clarity about adherence to organisational processes or responsibility.

Universities are generally responsible custodians of the public’s money but from time to time they will inevitably make errors of judgement regardless of how robust their processes are. The fact that so few research programmes come under such media scrutiny relative to the work going on suggests that the recent cases are anomalies rather than the norm.

There can also be issues where public policy changes in short periods of time. For example, we know the Cameron and May governments encouraged close links between UK universities and China. Subsequent Prime Ministers have taken a more sceptical position which has left some of these research partnerships exposed.

In the wake of the last few weeks, university teams will be examining their processes, and asking themselves whether they are doing all they can to ensure probity in their research work. If we start from a premise that researchers do their work as they believe it has a value, even where that value is not always widely agreed upon or shared, it is much easier to have an honest debate on how research ethics can be enhanced.

More light and less heat is needed to understand the trade offs in working with international partners, how universities can learn from one another in strengthening internal processes, and how academics can be supported to deal with students and staff undertaking difficult or controversial research.

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