Friday, August 24, 2007

Macquarie's Respect for Expertise

A few weeks ago I critiqued "An inside-outsider’s view of Human Research Ethics Review," a blog post by Greg Downey of the Department of Anthropology at Macquarie University, Australia. Downey complained in a follow-up comment that I had "singled [him] out on [my] blog for derision," an unfair charge, given the effort I have put into deriding a wide assortment of scholars and public officials. But he took the bait, and in two follow-up posts, Dr. Zachary Schrag on ethics, IRB & ethnography and Some practical notes on ethics applications, he explains some of the ethics review process at Macquarie. Together with the "Human Ethics" page of the Macquarie Research Office, these postings provide a glimpse at a system that cares more about research ethics than regulatory compliance.

Particularly striking is Downey's description of who reviews applications:
A kind of departmental review does take place within the university-wide committee at Macquarie, as members of the committee are clustered so that color-coded sub-groups do the preliminary and most serious review of applications for which they have special expertise. If an application has to go to the whole committee (for example, research with children, medical procedures, Aboriginal Australian groups, or ethically challenging research tends to), we usually turn to the members of our committee who are best versed in the area of study. If we have a particularly difficult ones, we’ll consult with a faculty member outside the committee who has special experience.

The key words here are "special expertise," "best versed in the area of study," and "special experience." Someone at Macquarie has decided that having a nutritionist review oral history, or an oral historian review nutrition experiments, is not in the best interest of researcher or subject, but that having knowledgeable people review applications might make everyone happy. I am particularly impressed that the experts do the preliminary review, which under the American regulatory framework (I'm not sure about Australia) would mean giving them the power to provide exemptions or expedited approval.

As I have noted in comments on his postings, Downey has yet to persuade me that even this level of expert review is necessary for projects by trained researchers that only involve survey, interview, and observation research, and I remain attracted to the University of Pennsylvania system, under which researchers are certified and then, largely, left alone. But I thank Downey for introducing me to a university that is thinking hard and creatively about ethical review.

No comments: