Gary Allen, Mark Israel and Colin Thomson|
In the 1980s and 1990s, many research institutions made the principled and commendable decision not to accept funding from the tobacco industry.
This reflected the recognition of the awful health impacts of tobacco use and the degree to which the industry was muddying the waters of public debate with academic and clinical research questioning the veracity of the overwhelming body of evidence that clearly showed the dire dangers of activity such as smoking. While we continue to be shocked by cases such those like the research of Hans J Eysenck (and this), for the main it is accepted that receiving funding from the tobacco industry is not in the public’s best interest.
For our part, AHRECS once declined an offer of consultancy from a tobacco company. That is a decision with which we are entirely comfortable.
There is no reason to believe that the issues associated with accepting funding from tobacco companies cannot be found elsewhere.
Recent stories make us wonder whether principled stances are required on cameras monitoring daily life and facial recognition. The apparent involvement of an Australian university researcher in developing ethnic-specific facial recognition software for use in Xinjiang prompted Curtin University to ask for a paper published by Wiley to be retracted.
This is not a criticism of a single university, publisher nor a single country, given concerns about privacy, consent and risk have been raised about cameras in Australia, China, the United Kingdom and the United States (for an accessible review of concerns in the United States, see John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight).
This article seeks ways to bring out the wider consequences of conducting research than an HREC might be qualified to consider. While impossible to draw out all such consequences, at least the known knowns and a guess at the known unknowns should be brought to light. There will always be unknown unknowns that might emerge later, such as were discovered for Chlorofluorocarbons 50 years after they were first deployed.
However, implied in the article is the assumption that not only should the wider ‘known unknowns’ be drawn out but also a judgment on what research might be ‘appropriate’ for the society and culture in which it is conducted and what might not be.
In hindsight, tobacco research is a clear example where the research should have been called out earlier. But what about research into the benefits and risks of ingesting Tetrahydrocannabinol for medicinal purposes? Or for recreational purposes? Especially if ingested by smoking marijuana? It appears to have taken a long time for such research to move from the unacceptable to the near mainstream.
Taking a more extreme example, if assisted dying is simply not on the national agenda, is it appropriate to conduct economic analysis of the opportunity cost of the supporting the last year of life of the frail aged instead of expenditure on improved neonatal care, including the impact on Gross Domestic Product?
The article proposes that Australia should consider establishing an uber-ethics process or body to draw out and consider broader issues in a research proposal beyond the competence of current HREC processes. However, the concept may be superficially attractive but very difficult to deliver. Not only would its terms of reference need careful construction, so would its composition. Above all, it would need to win wide respect in the broader community as both trustworthy and trusted. Unfortunately Australia currently has a mixed track record of setting up such bodies. The recent spate of Royal Commissions reaffirms the lengths necessary to get near such high aspirations.
Might it be better to start with a few experiments that test out ways of drawing out the broader issues in a research proposal? One option might be for a University or research institution to set up a review body for all the research in which it is involved, publish the results of its deliberations and conduct a review after 2 or 3 years. The review would include assessment of the credibility and acceptance in the wider community of its deliberations. Another option might be for HRECs to place a condition on their approvals that the researcher must publish their results not just with any disclaimers but also a well-rounded discussion of the risks of misuse and how those risks might be managed (and / or require an independent rapporteur to contribute that discussion).
The National Statement does recognise that, to some extent, risks beyond those involved in the procedures of the research project in question can be considered. On page 13, the National Statement recognises that “research may lead to harms, discomfort and/or inconveniences for participants and/or others.” Later, on the same page, the following appears:
Examples of risk to non-participants include the risk of distress for a participant’s family member identified with a serious genetic disorder, the possibility effects of a biography on family or friends, or infectious disease risk to the community. Some social research may carry wider social or economic risks; for example, research in a small community into attitudes to specific sub populations may lead to unfair discrimination or have effects on social cohesion, property values or business investment.
Are these risks to be assessed only during the conduct of the research – or beyond? If beyond, where does that inquiry end?
There are further complications. Suppose a committee does regard to risks of implementing research outcomes as legitimate concerns: does it have authority to decline to approve the research project on that basis? Or, is this a decision for the institution to whom the committee is accountable? If the committee does decline to approve a project on those grounds, can that institution override that committee decision? And would such a decision by an institution contradict the degree of independence the committee has – or should have?
Research funding will often be relevant as well, not simply as a source of institutional conflict-of-interest where external research funding is important for institutional viability or reputation, but on a wider canvas: whether any funds should be devoted to such research? A case against such funding would probably be stronger where public funding is involved than for private funding. However, the question of private funding brings this discussion full circle to where we started: research funded by the tobacco industry.
Human research ethics committees are less able to weigh the wider question whether an entire area of research is of benefit to the wider community: these are questions that are simply beyond their authority. Although it is sometimes argued that, in making decisions about the ethics of research projects, committees reflect society’s views, they are not established to judge matters of research policy or funding on behalf of society.
Consequently, these questions need to be considered beyond the institutional level.
One approach has been the establishment of cross-institutional arrangements to address the ethical acceptability of research and its implementation. A recent example is the ARC Centre of Excellence for Electromaterials Science (ACES) in Australia. Funding for the Centre included provision to establish an ethics policy and public engagement program as part of the Centre’s establishment.
However, these one-off grants do not provide a systemic answer. What capacity do we have as a society and a research sector to reflect on the ethics of how to guide research in areas such as:
- research that has military application (‘dual use’), and access to the intellectual property by foreign governments and foreign military end-users, a matter now before the Commonwealth parliament’s security committee;
- climate change;
- artificial intelligence; and
- genetic engineering?
Australia is ill-equipped to engage in broad research ethics debates outside the area of health research. The Australian Health Ethics Committee has a limited jurisdiction under the NHMRC Act to explore ethical issues relating to health. AHEC’s forerunner, the National Bioethics Consultative Committee also maintained a very limited focus during its short five-year life.
Other nations have established more effective and wide-ranging bodies for this purpose. Perhaps the oldest is the French National Consultative Ethics Committee which receives submissions from members of the public and publishes opinions on ethical issues in the health and life sciences. The German Ethics Council has a mandate to inform the public and encourage public discussion on matters of its own choice relating to ethics, society, science, medicine and law. In practice, the Council focuses on the life sciences, but this has included a report on animal welfare. The Austrian Bioethics Commission has a similar charter. Other countries have had and then closed down similar structures for political or financial reasons. The United States had a President’s Council on Bioethics until 2009 with responsibility for advising the President on ethical issues associated with biotechnology and biomedical sciences. The Irish Council for Bioethics lasted from 2002-10. In 2002, New Zealand established Toi te Taiao: the Bioethics Council that provided advice to the government on the basis of exemplary widespread consultation, before it was disbanded in 2009.
These national initiatives demonstrate recognition by some governments that broader ethical matters are serious and warrant careful and informed consideration and we need an appropriately funded national body that can drive these debates, independent of political or commercial interference. Sadly, Australia does not have a great track record of establishing such a body with the right remit or allowing it a sustained period of independence. However, just as we have needed science and an engaged and well-informed citizenry to take on the COVID-19 pandemic, we need the same collaboration to tackle the tough ethical questions that will continue to confront society and the researchers who serve it.
Further Resources on the Ethics of Facial Recognition
Thank you to Nik Zeps for acting as editor for this article and to the critical feedback from the external reviewer.
This post may be cited as:
Allen, G., Israel, M. & Thomson, C. (27 January 2021) Should we accept funding for facial recognition research, and other dilemmas? Research Ethics Monthly. Retrieved from: https://ahrecs.com/should-we-accept-funding-for-facial-recognition-research-and-other-dilemmas/.