Friday, 27 July 2018

Clearing Research Ethics Clearance

Credits: Bill Watterson - Calvin and Hobbes - one of my most beloved comics strips
Good grief... REC/IRB here we go again. We do years and years of research training to become highly qualified, scarce skills social science researchers, and when we actually want to put all that training into action, assemble the most talented and qualified team, design a great project proposal, hunt down the money, and ready we are, then there is that one hurdle still to take... and it's a paper deluge. Wasn't doing years of research training, Honours, Master's, PhD, Postdoc, all meant to ensure that we know the rules of good and ethical research? At what point is it that these qualifications become accreditation? Rules, rules, rules. We learnt them and we apply them, not? Isn't it so? What can a research ethics committee do? Is it not that in the end, we still have to trust the PI, the principal investigator, after submitting 20 pages of 'research ethics application', research proposal, research instruments including project information sheet, consent form, questionnaire, and so forth,... that in the end we still have to trust the PI to actually use them? Is it not so? I know, I know. It is about protecting the research participants, ensuring that the PI has taken all into account what might cause harm. Of course. I know, I know. But gosh, the processes, the paper war, the forms and all. In most social science research, we are really just asking our research participants to share their knowledge, their perceptions, their experiences with us - to enlighten us. The rules of good behaviour, along with the rules of ethical research learnt in training years... What are we trying to achieve in the ethics review process? If in the end it turns out to be a massive administrative/bureaucratic process, but there is no actual value add, then what have we achieved? If it is all about showing I know the rules, I can apply the rules, then why not having every few years a 'renewal exam' in research ethics, but then a scaled down review process for individual projects? Or what would be the solution? Trust and Punishment? I've been looking for something that can lighten up the mood of this blog post, that comes after I received approval for two ethics applications - no less than three months after I submitted them. That the approval sat for one month in the ethics committee administrator's inbox without being forwarded to me doesn't quite help... but really. The deluge of paper. The amount of work. And at the end, the value add was minimal. I could have gained more from a 1 hour conversation about my projects with the Chair of the REC/IRB, than the 30+ hours that it took me to assemble all the application stuff, the 3+ hours it took REC/IRB members to read through it, the hours of admin and responding to me with pedantic comments about irrelevant stuff, and another 5 hours of responding to these comments. Value add? Minimal. Good grief... I get it. Knowing that one has to connect the dots doesn't necessarily mean we know how to connect them right or how to see the full picture when immersed in the research process; the big picture of ensuring all is done as best it can and no one will be harmed. But really; I think we need to rethink this the clearing of the hurdle of gaining ethics clearance; rules, rules, rules. Thanks Calvin and Hobbes for lightening up my mood. :)