Bioethics Blogs

Unintentional discrimination in clinical research: Why the small decisions matter

by Arthur T. Ryan, M.A. and Elaine F. Walker, Ph.D.

Arthur Ryan is a graduate student in clinical psychology at Emory University. His research focuses on understanding the etiology and neuropathology underlying severe mental illness.

Elaine Walker is a Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience in the Department of Psychology at Emory University and is the Director of the Development and Mental Health Research Program, which is supported by the National Institute of Mental Health. Her research is focused on child and adolescent development and the brain changes that are associated with adolescence. She is also a member of the AJOB Neuroscience editorial board.

Arthur Ryan, M.A.
Over the past several decades, there has been a significant effort to minimize bias against individuals based on ethnicity and other demographic factors through the creation of seemingly impartial and objective criteria across a host of domains. For example, when the United States Federal Sentencing Guidelines were created in the 1980’s, one of their primary goals was to alleviate “…unwarranted disparity among offenders with similar characteristics convicted of similar criminal conduct” [1]. Unfortunately, even well-intentioned efforts such as this one can still have a disparate negative impact upon historically marginalized groups, such as the well-documented disproportionate sentencing of black individuals due to differing rules governing offenses committed with crack vs. powdered cocaine [2]. Concerns about such inadvertent bias are not limited to the legal domain. Agencies that fund clinical investigations are paying greater attention to demographic representativeness and access to participation in health-related research.

Let us consider a hypothetical example, drawn from the authors’ own field of research in a US context, of how seemingly objective research design choices can results in biases in access to research participation.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.