Key research findings:

 

  • All participants agreed that a research-led curriculum is the best way for students to learn. It inspires and motivates them to take ownership of their own learning.

  • There was a striking incongruence between ethics administrators’ and teachers’ accounts. Often, ethics administrators reported that their system was efficient and well-liked, yet teachers reported that they’d shut down student research because the ethics review system was too obstructive.

  • Administrators were often under-resourced and overwhelmed by ethics applications. Most universities had devolved review of low-risk research to sub-committees to deal with this workload, and this was how a lot of student research was handled.

  • But, as many pointed out, the downside of efficient, local, low-risk research ethics review was that researchers were incentivised to have their students do low-risk, and thus low-impact, research. As one participant, Professor Mark Israel, poignantly argued,

“We want a research ethics system that supports researchers who are working on the cutting edge.  And that means we’ve got to have the capacity to support risk-taking.  Not stupid risk-taking, not unethical risk-taking, but you don’t want a risk-averse ethics committee.  You want an ethics committee that actually tracks that frontier and supports people going beyond the existing frontier.”

  • Both researchers and administrators acknowledged that ethics review was a fundamental impediment to research, if only because it took time to get approval.

  • Of course, that impediment would be worth it if ethics review was ensuring the protection of research participants.  However, a majority of participants, including ethics administrators, confessed that they didn’t believe that ethics review made student research more ethical, one of the most striking findings of this study.

  • Many argued that ethics review existed mainly to indemnify universities (and to a lesser extent to protect student researchers), not to protect research participants.

  • Yet even when interviewees said they believed ethics review produced more ethical research, the reality of risk doesn't match  imaginations of risk. Very few respondents (only four of 40) could actually name a time when student research had placed participants at risk, whether at their institution or elsewhere.

  • Most interviewees believed it's not ethics review that produces ethical research practice, but rather the process of reflecting on ethical research practice, combined with good supervision for students. Thus, some argued, institutions needed to re-orient themselves away from a punitive, policing approach to ethics review to an approach that builds capacity for ethical thinking.

 

 

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