Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Blame the ESRC?

David Hunter kindly alerted me to Sarah Dyer and David Demeritt, "Un-Ethical Review? Why It Is Wrong to Apply the Medical Model of Research Governance to Human Geography," Progress in Human Geography 33 (2009).

Dyer and Demeritt attack the Economic and Social Research Council's 2005 Research Ethics Framework, the basic document guiding British Research Ethics Committees (RECs) in their oversight of social research. Some of this attack strikes me as misplaced, since it ignores elements of the Framework that address the authors' concerns.

For example, the authors complain that

in the case of critical social science, the aim of the research is typically to expose wider social injustices and in that way actually harm those who benefit from them. But, following the injunction of the ESRC (2005: para 3.2.5) that ‘[p]articipants’ interests or well-being should not be damaged as a result of their participation in the research’, it would be impossible to secure permission to interview employers whose discriminatory practices a researcher was hoping to expose and thereby end. (55)

But the ESRC understands this (somewhat), noting,

Much social science research has a critical role to play in exploring and questioning social, cultural and economic structures and processes (for example relating to patterns of power and social inequality), and institutional dynamics and regimes that disadvantage some social groups over others, intentionally or not. Such research results may have a negative impact on some of the research subjects. (22)

Likewise, Dyer and Demeritt write,

there are times when safety, either of the investigator or of research subjects themselves, means that research subjects cannot be informed about the true nature of research [such as] studies of human trafficking, illegal workers’ gang masters, and so on. In such cases the notion of asking participants to sign a consent form of the sort envisioned by the ESRC (2005) is ridiculous, and the ill of deception balanced by the importance of the research and a commitment to protecting anonymity. (57)

But the Research Ethics Framework recognizes this problem, stating, "informed consent may be impracticable or meaningless in some research, such as research on crowd behaviour, or may be contrary to the research design, as is often the case in psychological experiments where consent would compromise the objective of the research. In some circumstances – such as users of illegal drugs – written consent might also create unnecessary risks for research subjects." (21)

The real problem, it seems, is not the ethical content of the Research Ethics Framework, but the structure it employs to promote those ethics. Project-by-project committee review may be unable to handle the complexity and unpredictablity of social science research. As Dyer and Demeritt write,

Whereas drugs trials involving vast sums of money, or biomedical research on extremely vulnerable people in enormous pain need only gain anticipatory approval, the ESRC argues that because ‘purposes, methods, and intended uses’ of qualitative research evolves as it proceeds, this kind of research should be required to seek REC approval on multiple occasions. Such a disproportionate response is itself unethical if it overburdens researchers such that worthwhile research does not get done. (57)

The underlying issue is that committee review is a process specifically tailored to experimental research. The more a researcher fits the experimental model, the more detailed her protocol will be, and the more amenable to prior review. It's the open-ended, qualitative researcher who has the low signal-to-noise ratio, and for whom ethics committee represent such a waste of time.

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