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Ethics devil is in the detail

By Andrew Baker - posted Monday, 17 May 2010

Are you a researcher who likes to watch? You may need ethics approval for that. Ecology academics require university ethics approval for observing native birds because the act of watching may harm the bird.

Indeed, but there are devils in such detail for academics: frustration, disillusionment with administrivia, teeth-gnashing anxiety over hours misspent. Time during which post-graduate projects could have begun, experiments been conducted, papers written: core academic business.

Does the extra benefit for the animal that results from continual fine-focusing of the ethics approval process outweigh the increasing cost borne by exhausted academics trying ever-harder to scramble over hurdles just to begin their research? Can we continue to ensure the best possible care of animals involved in our research while avoiding being smothered under teetering reams of justification that litter the ethics paper trail?


I believe so, but only if we replace our trust in the expertise and ethical rigour of our researchers.

As an honours student in the mid-1990s, I conducted research on the stress levels of freshwater fish induced through gradual exposure to salt water. The purpose of the project was to determine their capability for active spread up the Queensland coastline via marine environments.

I recall ethics approval in those days being mainly concerned with correct euthanising procedure, with a few lines of project background and justification. The process was useful because in preparing my application I was able to increase my existing knowledge of stress responses in fish and to ensure the welfare of the subject animal received due attention.

Nowadays, the ethics approval process is much more detailed, requiring extensive literature review, theoretical and experimental justification, proof of handling experience, qualifying documentation and referee reports. What used to take a few hours now takes up to a week of intensive preparation. But it doesn't end there.

In the case of the ecologist working on native vertebrate fauna, ethics approval within the university must be sought in parallel with national parks permits to take fauna samples. One permit cannot be granted without the other being first approved, an apparently circular problem of Humean proportions. Both permits will be scrutinised by the panel and almost inevitably need to be reworked and resubmitted by the researcher for further consideration. There have even been cases of formal project defence with a slide presentation by the academic in charge to the ethics review panel.

I direct no blame towards members of university ethics panels; they are doing what humans do when confronted with unknowns. They order, systematise, clarify and pigeonhole.


The problem, as I see it, lies in the fact this process of improvement goes on without due consideration of researcher expertise. In short, there is no one who knows the specific needs of the experimental subject better than the experimenter.

Let's say the research project concerns the taxonomy and genetics of small mammals. Who understands the organism better than the research geneticist or taxonomist, joint leaders of the project, with years or decades of experience? Who respects animal needs and wants to preserve them in perpetuity more than a research ecologist who has devoted his life to studying them in loving detail?

The answer is no one.

The ecological researcher will know more than any university review panel about a given species' ecological needs, such as healthy population recruitment, effects of environmental pressures and resilience. If animals need to be sacrificed, then no one will have thought through the likely effects and reconciled its need for the greater good of scientific understanding with more care than the researcher.

Such is surely the case across the entire spectrum of projects championed by university academics requiring ethical approval.

Academics can do their research more effectively if universities revert to a much simpler ethics approval process, one that requires us to explain simply and briefly the needs and merits of the research project. All we need is your trust.

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First published in The Australian on May 12, 2010.

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About the Author

Andrew Baker works in the School of Natural Resource Sciences at Queensland University of Technology, Brisbane. His book Questions of Science (Revised Edition) is forthcoming from Pearson Prentice Hall. Andrew teaches in the Environmental Science and Ecology majors at all levels of the undergraduate and postgraduate program. His research interests are varied and broad in scope, including: environmental management, biodiversity, population genetics, systematics/taxonomy, palaeontology, philosophy of science and learning/teaching methodologies.

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