Bioethics Blogs

Wynn Calls for Department-Level Review of Student Research

L. L. Wynn, an anthropologist at Macquarie University and a member of that university’s Human Research Ethics Committee, spoke to 40 teachers and administrators at 14 Australian universities. She finds that “opportunities for independent undergraduate human research are being eroded by expanding ethics bureaucracies” and that “the ethics review process [is] a significant obstacle to universities and teachers who wish to incorporate original human research into the curriculum.” (7) She calls for the devolution of ethics review to individual departments.

[L. L. Wynn, “The Impact of Ethics Review on a Research-Led University Curriculum Results of a Qualitative Study in Australia,” Journal of Empirical Research on Human Research Ethics, Published online before print, March 16, 2016, doi:10.1177/1556264616636234.]

Wynn’s informants tell her that ethics boards display “biomedical or clinical bias,” that they delay student work by months, that they discourage bold questions about sexuality and mental health, and instead steer students into “much more generic, low-risk research that may actually not be all that interesting.” (5)

As Wynn acknowledges, such complaints will be familiar to those who have read the existing literature on ethics review of the social sciences, including Wynn’s own 2011 article, “Ethnographers’ Experiences of Institutional Ethics Oversight: Results from a Quantitative and Qualitative Survey,” which it was my privilege to edit.

Her chief contribution here is not documenting the problem, but forcefully advocating for a solution: departmental-level review. She writes than Australian university psychology department, which has such a practice, serves as “the single best-practice case that I identified during this research.” (9) Because that department monitors only psychology, it can use simplified forms and offer quick review, averaging only three days.

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.