“Have you got ethics yet?” is a question asked frequently where health, social and behavioural sciences postgrads gather on campus. The amount of time human research ethics committees take to approve an application is also a common topic of conversation among university staff. Researchers often, it seems, grumble about delays in beginning their data collection while their ethics application awaits approval. As a recently retired chair of an ethics committee I confess that I rarely felt sympathy for these grumblers. Mostly, it seemed to me, they simply failed to plan their research time-line to match the clearly stated realities of the ethics application and approval process. However, I believe that ethics committees need to have in place processes which can take accommodate an important issue in need of research which has arisen unexpectedly and where data collection is time critical—such as following a disaster event where agencies need researchers to be in the field collecting data from those affected before the quality of the information is compromised with the passage of time.
Starting with the 2009 Victorian Black Saturday bushfires (173 deaths, 2029 homes destroyed) I have been involved in several post-bushfire field research interview surveys of affected householders about their pre-fire bushfire risk perceptions, plans and preparations, and their decisions and actions during the fire. The studies were conducted at the request of fire and emergency management agencies. No adverse incidents occurred. The findings have assisted agencies in reviewing and refining their community bushfire safety policies and procedures. A good case can be made that the timely information gained by the post-bushfire interview research has contributed to improved householder bushfire safety.
In the post-bushfire research where I was the chief investigator 2011 – 2014, approval of these above-low risk studies by my university’s Human Ethics Committee was speedy—within 72 hours. Each application was in the form of a modification of an originally-approved application from 2009. However, colleagues across a range of institutions have told me that it would be very difficult for them to undertake similar post-disaster research because of the time that would be required to obtain approval of such above-low risk research from their human research ethics committee. Concerned about this apparent situation, I decided to investigate how many Australian university human research ethics committees (UHRECs) had provisions for expedited review of above-low risk research.
In a collaboration with the Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC, I sent a short survey questionnaire to all 39 Australian UHRECs in mid-2014. There were 28 responses (72%). Nine (32%) of the 28 reported having provisions for expedited review of above-low risk research; four described formal arrangements, five described ad hoc arrangements at the Chair’s discretion. Nineteen (68%) had no such provisions. Six of these 19 (32%) described possibilities if the circumstances were sufficiently compelling, the remaining 13 stated simply that they had no such provision. Six UHRECs described preferred arrangements for researchers to submit a generic application well in advance of an actual event and obtain provisional approval, and then submit a detailed application for modification when the specifics were known. A detailed report of findings is at http://www.bnhcrc.com.au/publications/biblio/bnh-1881
I believe that UHRECs which have no provisions for expedited review of above-low risk research do their institution, and the wider society, a disservice.
Jim McLennan is an adjunct professor in the School of Psychology and Public Health at La Trobe University, Melbourne. You can access Jim’s La Trobe University profile here and he can be contacted at J.McLennan@latrobe.edu.au.
This blog may be cited as:
McLennan, J. (2016, 22 February) A place for expedited ethics review of time-critical above-low risk research. Research Ethics Monthly. Retrieved from: https://ahrecs.com/uncategorized/a-place-for-expedited-ethics-review-of-time-critical-above-low-risk-research