Gary Allen and Kim Gifkins
A common refrain amongst people who have led or supported research ethics committees is that finding and retaining good members isn’t easy and that asking members to give up even more time so that they can participate in professional development can be a tough ask. Consequently, proposing additional administrative structures around members of committees may seem unrealistic. But in this post, we argue that some additional recordkeeping and tracking is good practice.
The National Statement advice on appointment of members includes providing members with a formal notice of appointment and for institutions to consider reviewing appointments to the research ethics committee.
Good governance practice would include recording the date on which individuals are appointed to the committee, when their membership term needs to be renewed and if there is a maximum date on their membership term.
Even great members shouldn’t be appointed to a committee with an open-ended membership term. Most people will need at least three years to get comfortable in their role. Nevertheless, three years is a good time to reflect on whether they are an active, informed and positive member of the committee. Five years could also be an additional point to reflect on whether to renew their membership. No member should really serve beyond seven years.
Maintaining an overall register of your members will give you a snapshot of how the membership of the committee stands.
Rather than renewing a large section of the committee at one time, where possible, it is prudent to intentionally set review, renew and maximum dates so that only around 25% of the committee will be changed at any one time. In addition to ensuring continuity, cohesion and camaraderie, it also minimises the amount of pain and recruitment work that is required at any one time.
The membership register should also track induction and professional development activities and, if updated on a regular basis, would be useful for NHMRC annual reporting. The Terms of Reference and Standard Operating Procedures (SOP) of the committee should establish an expectation that members participate in professional development activities at least once every three years. A member maintaining the currency of their human research ethics knowledge and review practice can be a useful measure of their engagement and commitment to their role.
This does require that plenty of different opportunities are made available to members so that they can participate in professional development, with corresponding support (including funding) from the host institution to support committee members participating in professional development.
Expecting members to give up time to attend full day, or longer, professional development activities may be a tall order. Professional development activities that are just exposition are not a good use of their time, are not respectful and probably are not effective. Practical activities that encourage discussion, collaboration and critical thinking are best. AHRECS has experience conducting interactive ‘fishbowl’ activities, where half of a committee reviews an application and decides on the review feedback, while the other half of the committee observes and provides the reviewers with feedback. The two halves then switch roles. We have found this kind of activity very effective and attendees have described it as fun and useful.
The National Statement also advises that institutions are responsible for ensuring that conflicts of interest are identified and managed. A complementary register would be a register of members’ actual and potential conflicts of interest. Preferably, this register should be available to the entire committee and good governance practice would be to make the register publicly available. Members should be encouraged to identify standing conflicts of interest when they are appointed and when their membership is renewed.
Every meeting of the committee should include a standard agenda item where members are prompted to identify if they have any additional conflicts to report. To account for conflicts of interest (whether actual, potential or perceived) that may only become apparent during the committee’s deliberation, the Chair should also remind members to make a declaration, so the committee can decide how that conflict should be managed. The standard prompt for members to disclose additional conflicts, any disclosures from members, and the subsequent decisions about management must be recorded in the committee’s minutes of a meeting.
The committee Chair and Secretary should regularly meet to discuss the two registers and plan for any actions (e.g. recruitment of new members) that need to happen in the months ahead. Ideally, for accountability purposes, there should also be at least a quarterly meeting between the Chair and the head of area providing secretarial support for the committee (e.g. manager or director of research). Discussion of these matters as one component of those meetings could function both to provide assurance of effective monitoring and/or seek further information or support.
The SOP of the committee should establish the general expectations of members (attendance at meetings or providing comments on applications, as well as participation in professional development). It should also discuss the two objectives of continuity and freshness. This should provide a general policy framework for the committee membership. The consequence being, if an ‘underperforming’ member is not renewed, it is nothing personal, it is a function of the committee’s policy.
In our opinion, these two registers, SOPs and committee behaviours are good practice and should be generally adopted.
This post may be cited as:
Allen, G. & Gifkins, K. (29 September 2022) An argument for registers for research ethics committee members. Research Ethics Monthly. Retrieved from: https://ahrecs.com/an-argument-for-registers-for-research-ethics-committee-members/