What is a Research Ethics Committee?
Research ethics committees (RECs) are an important part of a healthy research culture. Their role is to consider the ethical implications of research. Traditionally this has focussed on the need to protect research participants (both human and animal), but in recent years their role in supporting researchers, and promoting research integrity more generally, has been increasingly recognised.
Two types of RECs
It is important to distinguish two types of research ethics committees. The first type is often set up to consider ethical issues that may be relevant to researchers working in specific areas. These might include the ethics of research into genetic modification, climate engineering, dual-use research (e.g., research with military applications), or research using potentially contentious methodologies such as “human challenge” trials (where participants are intentionally infected with diseases such as COVID). As these are difficult and complex areas, the main output is often in the form of guidance or position statements that can be applied by researchers, their institutions, funders, and ultimately policymakers. Consequently, these committees are convened at a fairly high level by organisations with an interest in the area of research being considered. They normally include scientific and legal experts alongside those with a specific interest in the topic under consideration (such as patient groups).
But the second, and far more common, type of research ethics committee is those set up by universities, research organisations, or health care providers (such as the NHS) to consider the ethical issues relating to individual, and often very specific, research projects. These Research Ethics Committees — abbreviated as RECs and referred to as Institutional Review Boards (IRBs) in the United States — provide a point-in-time review of a very detailed research protocol before the research is allowed to start. They aim to provide an opinion as to whether the research, if carried out in accordance with the detailed protocol, will meet accepted ethical norms. Exactly what these norms are, and how they can be addressed, is a complex question that may need to take into account guidance created by the first type of ethics committee described above. As such, although RECs still need to have suitably experienced individuals, it is more important that they are also suitably independent from the researcher (and their funder) to ensure they give an ethical opinion that is free from as many conflicts of interest as possible. Scientific or research expertise is important, but so is the voice of non-expert members. Quite often researchers will not be allowed to publish their work if they cannot prove it was reviewed by a REC before it started.
REC review supports research and researchers
REC review is criticised by researchers as being too lengthy, burdensome, or bureaucratic. This is often because it is confused with wider governance processes relating to issues such as data protection, health and safety, financial management, etc. While such issues are important, the fact that they are related to specific, often legally prescribed, arrangements means that they are governance issues that are the responsibility of the research institution (e.g., the university) to review and approve. The distinction between governance approvals, and ethics opinion, is extremely important if the aim is to create systems that provide robust, but proportionate, support to research and researchers. While in some contexts committees are expected to review both governance and ethics issues, there is an increasing recognition that governance is best handled separately by expert research officers, freeing RECs to consider the more complex ethical issues that may arise in any given research project.
Written by Dr Simon Kolstoe, UKRIO Trustee.