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ResourcesHuman Research EthicsDisaster ethics: issues for researchers and participants (Papers: Dónal O’Mathúna | 2017)

Australasian Human Research Ethics Consultancy Services Pty Ltd (AHRECS)

Disaster ethics: issues for researchers and participants (Papers: Dónal O’Mathúna | 2017)


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Disaster responders need evidence to help guide their decisions as they plan for and implement responses. The need for evidence creates an ethical imperative to conduct some research on and in disasters. Some of that research involves human participants and raises another ethical imperative to protect participants. This presentation will provide an overview of some ethical challenges arising in balancing the dual imperatives in disaster research: to produce high-quality research findings and to engage with participants ethically and respectfully. Such issues have been highlighted by the inclusion of disaster research within the 2016 revision of the Council for International Organizations of Medical Sciences (CIOMS) ethics guidelines for health-related research involving humans.

An ethics in practice symposium was held in Auckland at the Auckland University of Technology South campus on June 28. 2017 and repeated in Wellington at the Massey University campus on July 7 as a continuation of an ethics in practice conference held at Otago University in 2015. The symposium was intended to bring social science researchers together with ethics committee members to discuss common concerns and to learn more about innovations in the field of disaster research ethics and ethics administration in Australia. The symposiums were funded by a Marsden grant (U00-088) from the Royal Society of New Zealand.

Debate exists over whether disaster research ethics is particularly unique. Regardless, the confluence of challenging ethical issues and the multiple vulnerabilities to which participants are exposed has the potential to create a perfect ethical storm. These issues will be examined through the lens of one set of benchmarks for ethical research in low-income settings, with examples from intervention research and qualitative research in humanitarian crises. Disaster research challenges current approaches to research ethics approval procedures. The current weight of research ethics An argument will be presented that research ethics is currently unbalanced with its focus on ethical approval and needs to refocus on facilitating ethical research. Virtue ethics for researchers needs to be developed because in the field, all that researchers may have to rely on are their conscience, virtues and personal integrity.

Dónal O’Mathúna is Associate Professor of ethics at Dublin City University, Ireland and at The Ohio State University, USA. He is the Director of the Center for Disaster & Humanitarian Ethics ( and was Chair of the EU-funded COST Action on Disaster Bioethics, 2012-2016 ( He has written and presented widely on disaster ethics, including a recent comment in The Lancet (DOI: 10.1016/S0140-6736(17)31276-X).

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