University ethics committees and the social sciences make awkward partners.
A younger colleague was thrilled last year at being one of the few successful applicants for a four-year research fellowship from the Australian Research Council, or ARC. Already an experienced anthropologist, she had spent months carefully crafting her project with the help of colleagues and university resources. She planned to continue her intensive field research in an Aboriginal community whose language she speaks. For eighteen years she has been building close and trusting relationships with people who appreciate the chance to explore and articulate their own values, perceptions and ambitions, in a social setting that the nation considers so problematic.
At the ARC, her proposal had gone through a rigorous ranking process involving external peer reviewers and an expert discipline-based panel. But then, suddenly and surprisingly, her application for ethics approval met with queries about matters of method and scientific merit from her university’s ethics committee that cut across the aims and methods that had already been examined and approved. She has been forbidden to begin the research until the committee is satisfied, and is now preparing her fourth attempt to gain approval.
This is one of several cases I’m aware of that are fuelling increasing concerns within the academy about the role of university human research ethics committees, or HRECs, in judging social science research. Another, even more distressing case involved a PhD candidate who received a scholarship through a highly competitive process, also for an original and valuable research project in an Aboriginal community, but has abandoned her university in despair after being faced with unanswerable questions that had nothing to do with ethics or the subject matter of the project.
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