Friday, January 24, 2014

Should IRBs Monitor Research Safety?

Susanne Bahn, Michelle Greenwood, and Harry Van Buren argue that "universities have a legal (and an ethical) duty of care for the safety of their employees and it is therefore reasonable to expect that all risks are identified, disclosed and adequately controlled" and that "highly risky research requires additional safeguards for the protection of the research subjects and researchers alike."

Their article offers scant details on what such safeguards might look like.

[Bahn, Susanne, Michelle Greenwood, and Harry J. Van Buren. “The Nexus of Employee Safety, Professional Integrity and Ethics: Applying Stakeholder Theory to University Researchers.” Research in Ethical Issues in Organizations 9 (2013): 13–29. DOI: 10.1108/S1529-2096(2013)0000009007]

The article argues that

Organisations such as universities have ethical obligations to their employees to reduce the harm associated with the employment relationship. Because research is such a significant part of what universities do, focusing on harm within the research environment is essential.

After the risk of harm is assessed, the organisation has an obligation to disclose the existence of that harm to the researcher(s) based on its best knowledge and institutional expertise and allow the researchers to decide whether or not to assume it. Here the analogue is to informed consent given by research subjects. While no research or activity is risk free, part of any organisation’s ethical responsibilities to stakeholders, including employees, is to assess, reduce and disclose the risk of harm in order to allow stakeholders to make decisions in their best interests.

The authors seem to think of the university as a sort of toxic furniture factory, where a few engineers and managers can be expected to learn the dangers of all the chemicals used and then warn the workers who handle them.

But universities are communities of scholars pursuing a wide array of activities, each with its own goals and dangers. As the sorry history of IRBs has shown, assessing those dangers--to participants or researchers--is beyond the "best knowledge and institutional expertise" of any individual or committee.

While dangers to researchers are real, this article does not explain why we should expect ethics committees to understand those dangers better than the researchers themselves. Researchers would be better served by consulting scholars who have done work similar to theirs, whether or not those scholars are affiliated with the same institution.

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