Wednesday, July 29, 2015

IRBs Ignore South Africans' Concerns

Leslie London and Helen Macdonald, both of the University of Cape Town, complain that funding institutions in North America and Europe solicited their advice but then showed “little regard for local ethical practices in South Africa.”

[Leslie London and Helen Macdonald, “Transnational Excursions: The Ethics of Northern Anthropological Investigations Going South," ResearchGate, 2014.]

London and Macdonald discuss two cases in which northern-hemisphere researchers planned to research South Africa health care with little advance preparation. They do not claim that the approved projects endangered specific participants. Rather, they argue that

there are concerns that enter into the ethical assessment of research other than the well-being of participants. These relate, for example, to the very choice of the research question, and the relative distribution of burdens and benefits. Further, in global health research power imbalances between researchers and their institutions often play out, particularly where southern colleagues are recruited to justify large multicentre collaborative grants. How to moderate such power relations has emerged as an important source of debate, spawning an entire literature on “International Health Research Ethics”. Some of the issues relevant to this form of considering power relate to challenges such as data ownership, ownership and appreciation of intellectual capital, respect for local institutional systems and capacity building of local partners. [Citations omitted.]

The two studies, they feel, ignored these broader concerns. They describe one as “‘parachute research’ ‘in which a foreign PhD student swans into a country to conduct a study and disappears after getting local informants to agree to share data that no-one else can provide to the researcher. Once shared, the researcher disappears with the knowledge, the experience and the intellectual capital.’” The other, they argue, seemed to assume that “the natives sit around with not much to do, so a U.S. undergraduate can easily mop up this kind of research in eight weeks.”

Because a U.S. IRB approved so impractical a study, London and Macdonald judge it to have been “extraordinarily naive.” This strikes me as potentially unfair, since IRBs are not charged with judging the practicality of a protocol, only its likelihood of harming living individuals. So while it may have been naive of a funder or an adviser to approve an impractical plan, the IRB could well have been making decisions out of regard for its own jurisdictional limits.

More troubling is the charge that the U.S. IRB in this case reduced the researcher’s ability to respond to local concerns. Macdonald asked that the U.S. IRB approve the study and delegate the necessary modifications to the University of Cape Town Anthropology Department, but the U.S. IRB refused. This put the student in the difficult position of trying to please both the local experts and an IRB at home that knew little about ethnography or South Africa.

London and Macdonald conclude that the real goal of the U.S. ethics process was “generating a paper trail which they might use to defend their institution in the event something were to go wrong.”

No comments: