Sunday, October 2, 2016

Brazil calls for "equitable representation from the Social Sciences and Humanities"

Brazil is revising its research ethics standards in ways that will help tailor them to research in the social sciences and the humanities. The standards provide for greater representation by scholars in those fields when policies and decisions are made, and they decenter some of the medical assumptions that had previously governed all research. But they do not go as far as the Canadian TCPS2 in recognizing the legitimacy of critical inquiry.

[Iara Coelho Zito Guerriero, “Approval of the Resolution Governing the Ethics of Research in Social Sciences, the Humanities, and Other Disciplines That Use Methodologies Characteristic of These Areas: Challenges and Achievements,” Ciência & Saúde Coletiva 21, no. 8 (August 2016): 2619–29, doi:10.1590/1413–81232015218.17212016.]

In Brazil, a National Research Ethics Committee (Comissão Nacional de Ética em Pesquisa, or CONEP) oversees each local Research Ethics Committee (Comitê de Ética em Pesquisa, or CEP). As in other countries, medical researchers and health officials have dominated the crafting of policy, resulting in restrictions that make little sense for research in the social sciences and humanities (SSH).

Since 2013, public health researcher Iara Guerriero and other members of a Working Group in Social Sciences and Humanities have labored to improve this situation, and in April 2016 they won National Board of Health approval for their resolution. In her article, Guerriero publishes the resolution and notes four major advances:

  1. Equitable composition of CONEP and involvement of SSH members in reviewing the protocols for these areas.
  2. Recognition that scientific merit must be assessed by competent areas.
  3. Discrimination between the process of obtaining and registering consent.
  4. Explanation of studies that do not require analysis by the REC/CONEP system, where the preliminary steps are not assessed.

Since a major finding of Ethical Imperialism was that inappropriate regulations are the product of the exclusion of social scientists and humanities research from policy making, I am particularly encouraged by the first advance. Article 26 of the resolution states that

The ethical analysis of the study projects to which this Resolution refers can only be done by Research Ethics Committees that have an equitable representation of members from the Social Sciences and Humanities area, with the reporters being selected from among those members qualified in this area of knowledge.

Achievements 3 and 4 are also potentially quite significant. One of the enduring complaints of social scientists over the decades has been the poor fit between experimental models, which expect protocols to be designed in advance of any research, and the actual practices of qualitative researchers, whose projects evolve less predictably. Canada’s TCPS2 states that “REBs should be aware that it is quite common for specific questions (as well as shifts in data sources or discovery of data sources) to emerge only during the research project,” and it sounds as though Brazil is moving in that direction as well.

The Brazilian resolution does not mention historical research, journalism, or any form of critical inquiry, and I am troubled by Article 3, section VIII, which presents the principle of “Researcher assurance that the information obtained as a result of the study will not be used to harm participants.” As I have repeatedly noted on this blog, journalists, historians, political scientists, sociologists, and even anthropologists have acknowledged that some research is legitimately critical of the people it concerns, and there is nothing wrong in using someone’s freely given words against them.

“This is a time of celebration and much hard work,” writes Guerriero, and it certainly sounds as though Brazil’s social science and humanities researchers have taken a step forward. But I hope that as they challenge the imposition of medical norms on nonmedical fields, they will follow Canada’s lead in recognizing the legitimacy of critical inquiry.

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