Research and Ethics

Posted on  by claire.lowenstein

Heading into my second week as a research assistant with SERT I’m feeling pretty good! Over the weekend we were told to look up the TRI Council Policy and complete modules meant to better familiarize ourselves with its information. Some of the policy’s guidelines for ethical conduct of research seem fairly obvious, like “respect for persons” and “concern for human welfare” but put into practice it’s a lot more nuanced than it seems. Our discussion during our SERT meeting revealed that the question of ethical research is far more nuanced than it seems. At one point during the meeting Jon and Tesni gave us a hypothetical: if we were sitting on a research board, would there be any absolutes for us that would automatically deem a project unethical? (And therefore unworthy of study.) We found even the most basic rules challenging. In theory, the idea of informed continuous consent should ground every research project. But in many foundational psychological studies that have revealed untold truths about the nature of human behaviour, deception is built into the study’s research design. Even with something as seemingly self evident as the promise of not inflicting harm on participants becomes complicated if we consider that drug companies offer money to participants willing to test new medication with potentially harmful side effects all the time. Does the cost of one’s your health outweigh the financial benefit of participating in these studies? For a lot of people the answer is ‘no’. But even so, should we disregard these studies because of the questionable ethics employed to achieve its results ? What if the knowledge produced from the studies helped prevent or cure illnesses plaguing millions of people? This is where our ethical boundaries are tested. We came to the conclusion that projects have to be assessed each based on their own merit. As for our own SERT project, our discussion left me with a lot of questions. How can all of us come to an agreement on a shared ethical code that can both guide our project and secure approval from the board. Will this code get compromised if the results we are see aren’t what we had hoped for? How do we keep that from happening? How do we keep from getting attached to participants who choose to volunteer with us? Is an emotional attachment to our participants necessarily a bad thing? In theory isn’t one required, if as stated in the TCPS, our responsibilities to participants include “respect for persons” and “concern for wellbeing”. Or can all of this threaten the ethics of our work? I have a feeling these are questions we will be grappling with for awhile.

-Claire

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