Human Studies & Experiments

Newsweek’s Sharon Begley recently wrote an article lamenting the red tape and paternalism interfering with research on humans.

In her article, she presents three main factors that impede such experiments.

First, she notes that the university panels that oversee human experimentation tend to be overprotective. As an example, she cites the restrictions placed on Scott Atran’s research regarding why people become terrorists.  He was not permitted to ask captured terrorists personal questions because this was regarded as violating their right to privacy.

Second, she points out that human studies and experiments do not have the “sex” appeal of basic science because they are not cutting edge or innovative enough. Of course, scientists are generally not permitted to do anything cutting edge with human subjects and this ensures that human research will be less “sexy.”

Third, she finishes with a common problem in academics: people in one field sometimes fail to see the value of research in another field and hence can be inclined to deny requests for experiments.

Not surprisingly, Begley sees these problems as interfering with important research. Her article also raises points that are philosophically interesting.

While the problems she presents are matters of concern, review panels for research are extremely important from a moral perspective. From a utilitarian standpoint, they can be justified because they serve to protect people from various harms.  Sadly, there are numerous examples in which research was conducted on human beings without such oversight. In the United States, one of the more infamous examples is the Tuskegee syphilis experiment in which 399 men were deceived and ultimately allowed to simply die. Cases such as this one show the clear need for careful review and regulation of human research.

Naturally, it might be argued that allowing unrestricted experimentation on humans would create more good than harm in general terms. After all, without such restrictions medical experimentation could be conducted more rapidly and perhaps more effectively. This would lead to more and better cures, thus outweighing any damage done to the test subjects. However, history seems to show that unrestricted research tends to have the opposite effect: it often harms human subjects with little or no positive return. The infamous Japanese experiments in the Second World War provide disturbing examples of this.

A more reasonable approach would be to retain the review of human research while taking steps to ensure that only legitimate moral concerns are taken into account.

Take, for example, the research on why terrorists become terrorists. While there should be clear moral limits regarding what can be done to captured terrorists, it does not seem reasonable to be overly concerned with their right to privacy in personal matters. Presumably Atran had no intent to threaten or torture the prisoners if they failed to answer his questions Hence, if they wished to maintain their privacy, they could do so by simply not answering his questions. Further, the potential benefits of his research seem to outweigh concerns about the privacy rights of imprisoned terrorists. If asking them personal questions could help reduce terrorism in the world, then this seems to be a reasonable research request to grant.

Of course, there is the concern that prisoners cannot provide informed consent and that they might say things that would result in additional prosecution. The first concern is legitimate. After all, if a person cannot provide such informed consent, then making them research subjects seems morally suspect at best. Imprisoned terrorists might believe that they have no choice but to participate or might mistake the researcher for someone who has been sent to interrogate them. While these are legitimate concerns, there seem to be clear ways around them. The prisoners could be clearly informed as to what the researcher intends and assured that their involvement is completely voluntary. Provided that such steps are taken, it would seem that informed consent could be provided even by imprisoned terrorists.

The second concern has some legitimacy in that the researcher could indirectly harm the subjects should the subjects reveal things that would result in further prosecution. This is based on the  legitimate concern that potential harms to the subjects should always be taken into account when research is being conducted.

In the case of imprisoned terrorists it is tempting to say that it would be good if they revealed new information to the researcher. After all, if plans for an attack were revealed, then the attack could be thwarted and lives saved. Or, if the subjects were revealed to be involved in other crimes, then they should be punished for them. While there are good grounds to believe in a right to privacy, this right does not seem to extend to concealing past or planned misdeeds.

Obviously, not every case will be like the imprisoned terrorists case. However, the review of any case can benefit from the proper application of practical and moral reasoning. The challenge is developing the ethical and practical guides in such a way that the results are correct more often than not. This is, of course, part of the general challenge of getting through life. This, obviously enough, assumes that there are better and worse results.

In regards to the fact that human research is not as “sexy” as basic research, it seems that something should be done to change that perspective. While basic research is important, human research is also critical as well. Perhaps Justin Timberlake can help researchers with this.

More seriously, the importance of human research can be stressed and this might help improve its image among those who dole out grants.

Finally, there is the matter of how academics in one field sometimes fail to see the value of research in other fields. While I have not researched this matter rigorously , I have been a professor for quite some time and have had opportunities to observe and discuss this matter.

In some cases, academics are reasonably well informed about other fields and do their homework when they are called upon to make judgments about such fields. In other cases, academic folks are woefully ignorant of other fields and can even regard them with unconcealed contempt.

While professors and other academic types are often rather busy, it seems reasonable to expect people on such panels to  take the time to have at least some basic grasp of the research they are assessing. Also, steps can and should be taken to build understanding across the disciplines. While a person cannot be expected to master yet another field, it is possible to develop some basic understanding of and sympathy for other fields. This would be beneficial in the context of these review panels and in general.

With such improved understanding, panel members can better review proposals. This will make it more likely that beneficial research projects will gain approval and this would be a gain for humanity. Obviously, the panels  will still reject some proposals but at least it will be more likely that the rejection will be for legitimate reasons.

  1. I agree with ethics panels in principle but in practice it’s a massive hurdle for a junior clinical psychology researcher like myself.

    The bureacracy is quite staggering and the form in the UK (COREC) is far from user friendly and full of repetition.

    As the quality of the research is sometimes seen as an ethical concern what you find is that ethics simply do the same job as peer review panels and R & D panels.

    I think it means you get very organised and efficient people being very good at churning out research but perhaps it stifles innovation and flexibility? I may have an idea I want to test but I know it will be 6-7 months by the time I can begin to even recruit.

    There’s also a sense that ethics need to justify their existence by making at least some changes to every proposal – resulting in at least one resubmission for most. Some researchers take to planting slightly controversial things in their proposals to ‘take the heat’ – i.e., give ethics panels something to do.

    I think it might be useful if researchers were supported by ethics panels more. For example, this could involve an ethics rep meeting with a researcher in the early stages to review a draft design of the project and advise on what is likely to be acceptable and what is not. This rep could assist with the form completion thus speeding the process up.

  2. I don’t know anything about research on human beings or about ethical boards or committees that control it. However, two thoughts struck me as I was reading Mike’s ‘essay’.

    First, the ‘research’ carried out by the Japanese on living subjects did not seem to have any ethical boundaries or clearly scientific purpose. The same may be said of German ‘research’ carried out in the concentration and death camps (which Mike does not mention). The reason is partly that those concerned often did not have any clearly stated research aims or methodology based on those aims, but also that the moral boundaries encouraged what seems a latent tendency towards cruelty in the ‘researchers’. In that way, torture (and sadism) seemed to become at least one of the purposes of the research, especially where no scientific rationale seemed to hand.

    The second point, regarding Scott Atran’s research into the causes of terrorism, and why terrorists actually joined in terrorist groups and activities, is this. Mike suggests that such investigations might in fact help, if the terrorist mentions ongoing operations, to prevent more terrorism from occurring. But, surely, if such research is permitted – and because it is an ‘invasion of privacy’ – there would have to be some kinds of assurance of confidentiality. Would it not be (ethically) wrong for a researcher to show up in one guise, and then show, by his actions, that it was a disguise?

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