The revised National Statement on Ethical Conduct in Human Research 2007 (updated 2018) was released on 9 July 2018.
Content of the updated National Statement
The National Statement consists of a series of guidelines made in accordance with the National Health and Medical Research Council Act 1992 and is subject to rolling review. This means that parts of the National Statement are updated as needed, in accordance with strategic planning, or in response to user feedback or national or international developments in research or ethics.
Since 2007, Section 3 of the National Statement has addressed ethical considerations specific to research methods or fields. The 2018 revision provides a new structure for Section 3, based on the elements of a research project (from conception to post-completion). The revised Section 3 begins with a chapter that addresses ethical issues in all research, followed by specialised guidance for research involving human biospecimens, genomics and xenotransplantation.
This approach emphasises that researchers, Human Research Ethics Committees (HRECs) and other users of the National Statement must take account of the principles and major themes in research ethics addressed in Sections 1 and 2 of the document as the foundation of the guidance in Section 3 and then, in turn, consider the guidance provided in Chapter 3.1 as a base for the guidance provided in the other chapters included in this section.
While significant changes have been made to all aspects of the guidance provided in Section 3, we note, in particular, the additional guidance that has been provided in relation to collection, use and management of data and information and to management of the findings or results arising from genomic research.
As part of this update, changes have also been made to Chapters 5.1, 5.2 and 5.5 in Section 5, the Glossary and the Index as a consequence of the revisions to Section 3.
Revisions to the National Statement were informed by working committees and through public consultation in accordance with requirements of the National Health and Medical Research Council Act 1992.
Currency and effective date
All users of the National Statement, including HRECs, research offices and researchers are expected to ensure that the current version of the National Statement is being used in developing research proposals, making submissions for ethics review and undertaking ethics review. However, as a consequence of the scope of the revisions to Section 3, we expect that users of the National Statement will gradually integrate these revisions into their proposals, submissions and review over the period from July to December 2018, with full implementation expected by 1 January 2019.
This timeline is intended to give researchers and HRECs an opportunity to familiarise themselves with the new guidance prior to the revocation of the version of the National Statement updated, most recently, in 2015. To facilitate this transition, both the current version of the National Statement and the updated version are available on the NHMRC website at http://nhmrc.gov.au/guidelines/publications/e72.
Use of the National Statement is also linked to the Human Research Ethics Application (HREA), released in December 2016 to replace the National Ethics Application Form.
To coincide with the release of the revised National Statement, questions in the HREA will require revision and users of the HREA will be advised when the revised HREA is online.
Institutions and HRECs are encouraged to allow a transition period for researchers while the revisions to the HREA take effect. The provision of a transition period, how it will be managed and its timeframe are at the discretion of individual Institutions/HRECs.
Australia’s research integrity framework is underpinned by three national standards developed by NHMRC and its co-authors, the Australian Research Council (ARC) and Universities Australia (UA). Together these three standards provide guidance on responsible and ethical research conduct for both humans and animals.
The overarching document is the Australian Code for the Responsible Conduct of Research, 2018. The Code is the leading reference for researchers and institutions across all disciplines about the expectations for responsible research conduct and the handling of investigations into research misconduct. After 10 years in operation, the Code has been reviewed and the 2018 edition was released in June 2018. The other two documents are the National Statement and the Australian code for the care and use of animals for scientific purposes (also endorsed by CSIRO).
AHRECS (While we know it predated the recent work on s3) What drove the decision to conduct a rolling review, rather than a review of the entire document?
NHMRC During the revision of the National Statement that was completed in 2007, it was determined that a more flexible, more efficient approach to revising the document would be a good innovation. We wanted to be able to both respond to the needs of users for more limited changes – from a word, to a paragraph, to a single chapter – without having to review the whole document and to be able to integrate or modify the content in response to changes nationally or internationally in research, research ethics or government regulation. Review of the 1999 National Statement took three years from start to finish and we thought we could improve on that timeline! We have found that this approach has, in practice, enabled us to make both minor changes and significant changes to single chapters of the document, as well as to review one of the five sections of the document, as we have just done.
AHRECS Are there downsides to that approach?
NHMRC Yes, there are. The major downside is that the document is ‘of a piece’ and changes to any one part of the document invariably require consideration of changes to the other parts, not just in terms of cross-referencing, but in terms of the content itself. This issue of ‘consequential effect’ manifests itself in the need to ensure consistency in our guidance and to consider the impact on the whole document of more philosophical or conceptual changes that have been introduced by the changes. An example in the most recent revision of Section 3 is that our approach to interventional research in Section 3 had a ‘flow on’ effect to Section 5 in terms of where certain guidance belonged, how that guidance should reflect changes in the clinical research sector since 2007 and how it should reflect other guidance documents (e.g. related to safety reporting) that NHMRC has published in the last 12 months.
AHRECS What were you hoping to accomplish with the changes to section 3 (and Section 5 + the Glossary)? Was it achieved?
NHMRC Principally, we were hoping to facilitate a re-thinking on the part of users (researchers and HRECs, primarily) regarding how they conceptualise and address ethical issues in the design, review and conduct of the research. We began with a decision to abandon the idea of ‘categories’ or ‘types’ of research as the main way to package this guidance and to focus on the reality that most ethics guidance applies to ALL research, thereby requiring ALL researchers to consider it, rather than just going to their specialised chapter of the document and, potentially, ignoring the broader issues. We then settled on the ‘life cycle’ of a research project as the best structure – that is, from conception to post-completion stages of a research project. This also enabled us to see more clearly what was not general guidance and encapsulate that extra guidance in separate, specialised chapters that each required consideration of the general guidance as a prerequisite to fully understanding and implementing the specialised guidance content.
The changes that we made to Section 5 and the Glossary were a direct consequence of the revision of Section 3 and we purposefully did not introduce changes to those parts of the document that were independent of the Section 3 revision, even though it was pretty tempting to do so sometimes.
We do think that we achieved our objectives and we are very satisfied with the results of the review process.
AHRECS If you could say just one thing about the work to date what it be?
NHMRC Review of the National Statement, while challenging, involves very stimulating and satisfying dialogue with lots of researchers, reviewers and other users of the document. We are so committed to it that we are almost immediately taking on the review of Section 4 and Section 5 – so, watch this space!
AHRECS When someone says they would have liked examples to better illustrate the new concepts in the update how do you respond?
NHMRC A weaselly response would be: it depends on which new concepts you are talking about; but, to use one example, a good look at Chapter 3.3: Genomic research and the Decision tree for the management of findings in genomic research and health care that we included (on page 52) to address this complex issue provides just such an attempt to illustrate by example. The main impediment to using examples or case studies to illustrate concepts is the difficulty of deciding which concepts to illustrate and with how many examples, as well as potentially expanding the size of the document exponentially in order to do the examples justice.
AHRECS When will a html version be available online?
At present, the 2007 version of the National Statement (updated May 2015) is available in both PDF and HTML format; whereas the version updated 2018 is only available in PDF. We are not 100% sure when the HTML version of the National Statement (updated 2018) will be available, but we anticipate within the next two to three months. Please also note that the current address (https://beta.nhmrc.gov.au/about-us/publications/national-statement-ethical-conduct-human-research-2007-updated-2018#block-views-block-file-attachments-content-block-1) is only temporary, which means that you’ll need to update your bookmarks/links again when the final version of the new NHMRC website is released in late August or early September.