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Ethics review in Scottish universities: how can we do better?

Research ethics is a core theme for all UK funding councils and Scottish universities. Since the early 2000s, university research ethics committees (RECs) have proliferated in response both to meet research funders’ requirements and to address institutional ethical pressures.

Old College Quad

Ethical scrutiny is now applied not just in health and the social sciences, but also increasingly in disciplines such as the humanities, law, business studies, social work, and art and design. However, there are no agreed or harmonised procedures or benchmarks for ethics review within higher education. Moreover, there is lack of clarity and agreement about the standards by which non-medical research should be assessed; far less are there harmonised ways that promote proportionality, accountability, efficiency, and transparency. All of this can seriously hinder the conduct of sound research and undermine the credibility of ethics review.

Ethics review in Scottish universities: how can we do better? project aims to investigate the regulatory nature of ethics review in Scottish universities. Employing an ‘anthropology of regulation’ methodology, the project explores what works well and not so well, and will chart how ethics review can be done better.

The methodology is influenced by regulatory theory and the anthropological concept of liminality. The specific lens of liminality will help to understand the dynamics of the transformative processes of ethics. Specifically, the methodology will involve:

  1. Document analysis: qualitative analysis of regulatory sources covering university RECs, which provide context and historical tracing of how these RECs emerged, and tracing how regulations governing them have developed and been applied over time;
  2. Interviews and observations: empirical evidence of the behaviours and experiences of RECs through ethnographic methods, i.e., observations and interviews. This evidence will be analysed qualitatively, specifically through thematic analysis.

This project is highly relevant for the Scottish universities and academic community as it will explore whether ethics review in Scottish universities is helping or hindering academics to develop and advance their new ideas and innovative proposals, and what can be done to better operationalise this recent legal obligation.

The project is funded by The Carnegie Trust for the Universities of Scotland.

Dr Edward Dove

Edward (Ted) Dove is Lecturer in Health Law and Regulation at the Law School, University of Edinburgh. Ted’s primary research interests are in the areas of confidentiality and data protection law in the biomedical context, research ethics governance, and health research regulation. His current research focus lies in assessing the links between the common law duty of confidentiality, privacy, and data protection law; assessing how EU and UK data protection law impacts health research and data-driven medicine; and in conducting empirical studies of research ethics committees and other bodies involved in research governance.

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Cristina Douglas

Cristina Douglas, the research assistant for the project, is a medical anthropologist and a PhD candidate at the University of Aberdeen. Cristina's main research interest is focused on human-animal relationships in later life, especially when accompanied by cognitive impairment.  More recently, Cristina has developed an interest in the ethical challenges that emerge in the context of research involving adults who may lack capacity to give consent, as well as the ethics surrounding the involvement of non-human participants in social research.