Friday, July 11, 2008

The Biomedical Ethics Juggernaut

The third contribution to the PS symposium is Tony Porter, "Research Ethics Governance and Political Science in Canada."

Porter laments that "the history of research ethics governance in Canada reveals recurrent concerns expressed by political scientists and other SSH [social sciences and humanities] researchers that indicate the inappropriateness of the [ethics] regime for SSH research, and that also create the impression that the regime is a juggernaut that continues on its trajectory, relatively impervious to criticism." (495)

Porter then offers a helpful capsule history of the debates leading up to Canada's present policy statements. From an American perspective, they look pretty good. In contrast to the Belmont Report, which calls for informed consent and harms-benefit assessment without specifying the types of research to which it applies, Canada's Tri-Council Policy Statement declares:

certain types of research— particularly biographies, artistic criticism or public policy research—may legitimately have a negative effect on organizations or on public figures in, for example, politics, the arts or business. Such research does not require the consent of the subject, and the research should not be blocked merely on the grounds of harms-benefits analysis because of the potentially negative nature of the findings. (496)

Unfortunately, Porter finds that in practice, research ethics boards ignore such guidance. For his own article, he was asked to specify questions in advance, destroy data, and write long explanations of his research plans. And he warns of even stricter regulation ahead.

Porter attributes the imposition of biomedical ethics and regulation on non-biomedical research to the clout that biomedical researchers have in government and universities. There are more of them, they have more money, and they care more about ethics--since they face more serious ethical challenges. As a result, "the growth of a biomedically oriented but unified research ethics regime has appeared as a seemingly unstoppable trend in Canada." (498) Rather dismally, Porter suggests that the only thing that will stop that trend is its own ability to alienate researchers until "opposition on the part of SSH researchers will increase and the legitimacy of the arrangements will be damaged, as will the ability of the regime to elicit the degree of voluntarism and acceptance that is needed to sustain it." (498)

Perhaps for lack of space, Porter does not consider another possibility: that the social sciences will internalize the medical ethics implicit in the "unified research ethics regime." The American Anthropological Association took a big step in this direction in 1998, with the adoption of a code of ethics that comes close to rejecting the idea that research "may legitimately have a negative effect on organizations or on public figures." If the ethics regime grows stronger in Canada and elsewhere, and more social scientists follow the AAA's line, it may be that young people interested in "critical research," as Porter puts it (496), will seek careers in journalism, rather than in university scholarship. To use a Canadian example, if Russel Ogden were writing for a newspaper, no one would be blocking his research.

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