Is the independence of ethics committees at risk?

Is the independence of ethics committees being compromised?

The independence and impartiality of ethics committees are critical to ensure that the assessments or reviews they carry out are fair, free from influence, and lawful. Independence and impartiality help to build trust and confidence and give an ethics committee greater credibility and legitimacy. The SATORI 2015 report on research ethics committees based on interviews with such entities in the EU and beyond) states, “A general condition is that all members (of ethics committees) must be independent. They cannot have a personal interest in the research being assessed. Membership should be refused when independence cannot be assured.”

The Croatian plagiarism scandal, in particular, leads one to question whether the powers of ethics committees in the public sector are being eroded, and their independence is under threat. This is not the only case that raises this concern. On 7 Jan 2017, the Guardian reported how House Republicans in the USA gutted the Office of Congressional Ethics (an independent ethics watchdog), putting it under their own control. This was done in a secret ballot hours before the new Congress convened for the first time (the move was subsequently scrapped after a backlash).

Developments in the private sector are also relevant to consider. For instance, an article by Jackman and Kanerva, in the Washington and Lee Law Review Online describes the research review process designed and implemented at Facebook. The Facebook research review group consists of a standing committee of five, and includes experts in research, law, ethics, communications, and policy. The article does not mention how the research review process addresses ‘independence’ and ‘impartiality’, choosing to focus on other aspects. Are ethics committees being constituted as mere compliance mechanisms without due regard to their proper constitution for maximum effectiveness? [For other discussion of the Facebook research review process, see the critique by Anna Lauren Hoffmann in The Guardian].

The Council of Europe’s Guide for Research Ethics Committee Members states, “RECs must be independent and demonstrably able to make decisions without undue political, professional, institutional or market influence. This crucial requirement should be duly reflected in the procedures for appointing REC members, in the requirements for REC membership, and in the procedures for dealing with potential conflicts of interest (members must declare potential conflicts of interests) and in the sources of funding of RECs.”  The World Health Organization (WHO) Operational Guidelines for Ethics Committees that Review Biomedical Research state, “ECs should provide independent, competent, and timely review of the ethics of proposed studies. In their composition, procedures, and decision-making, ECs need to have independence from political, institutional, professional, and market influences. They need similarly to demonstrate competence and efficiency in their work.” The UK Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) Governance arrangements for research ethics committees state, “Research organisations (ROs) are responsible for ensuring that the research ethics committees (RECs) within their organisation act, and are seen to act, independently. They should be free from bias and undue influence from: the RO in which they are located; the researchers whose proposals they consider, and the personal or financial interests of their members”.

Similarly, the SATORI Framework for Ethics Assessment calls for:

  • independence of research ethics committees from the researchers and other institutions (these might include research sponsors, research management body, government institutions, other RECs etc.);
  • supervision of ethics committees not to compromise their ability to be independent in their decision-making;
  • the work of the ethics committees to recognise the goals of the organisation connected with the ethics assessor, without undermining the independence of the ethics committees’ decisions;
  • ethics panels to be independent, multidisciplinary and pluralist by including members from different research fields and ethical traditions that are consistent to the goals of the ethics assessment.

The SATORI policy brief Improving the organisation of research ethics committees (RECs) published in January 2017 spotlights the challenges faced by ethics committees and presents  further recommendations for promoting good practices.

Tags: ethics committees, independence, impartiality


Please read the February issue of the SATORI Newsletter covering a variety of topics e.g. AI principles, data economy, gender equality, human genome editing, invitro organs, privacy, public image of science, open government data, rights of children in biomedicine, research data sharing, ethics committees, robots, RRI, scientific integrity, sustainability.

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