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Australasian Human Research Ethics Consultancy Services Pty Ltd (AHRECS)

Research Ethics and the New Gene-editing Technology0


Nik Zeps, Consultant, AHRECS

Keywords: Ethical Review, International Guidelines, Gene editing technologies,

It has now been over six months since He Jiankuiand his team used the CRISPR/CAS9 gene editing technique to introduce a gene alteration in twin girls (STAT). The revelation that he had performed this audacious experiment shocked the world and left people asking how he had been permitted to do it. Dr He Jiankui is not a medical doctor but is qualified in biophysics and was one of the pioneers of the new gene editing technology in China having worked in the United States for five years where he undertook post-doctoral studies.

The report that accompanied the announcement of the birth of the twin girls outlined how He and his colleagues had sought out couples where the father was HIV-positive but the mother was not. The purpose of their work was to alter a gene known to confer resistance to HIV infection, CCR5, so that the children would be naturally resistant to possible infection. The public response worldwide was one of outrage and fierce opposition from all quarters. His fellow scientists and doctors denounced his actions as immoral and unethical and he was fired by the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, China.

Chinese authorities immediately placed a prohibition on any such activities and research (human embryonic gene editing that leads to the birth of babies) and claims were made that he and his team had acted against the law. The People’s Republic of China does have guidelines that forbid any research that involves human reproductive cloning; however, they do permit therapeutic cloning using embryonic stem cells where the aim is to cure or prevent illness. This is similar to the United Kingdom and several other European countries, but this is not legal in Australia. The key question here is whether such research is restricted to generating embryo stem cell lines or whether it permits the creation of embryos that can be implanted and grown to a full-term delivery.

There remain many unanswered questions from this case. He claims that he had ethics approval but the responsible committee denies they had any involvement. Clearly the clinic that recruited the potential parents (several signed up) also knew of the work and endorsed it. All of those working on the project presumably knew what the aim of their work was and yet still conducted it willingly. It is also important to note here that in this highly controversial case the world does not have any independent confirmation that any gene editing actually happened or that the twin girls have the CCR5 alteration. However, prominent scientists who were present at the announcement appear to believe the claims and some of the details in the report itself appear to reflect the reality of his claim.

In response to international outrage, a group of prominent scientists have called for an international moratorium. This would be similar to the 1975 Asilomar conference on recombinant gene technology. In 2015 UNESCO called for a moratorium on genome editing of the human germline at least until the ‘safety and effectiveness of procedures remain unproven’. Both calls envision the possibility that prohibitions may be lifted if the evidence for safety and effectiveness can be met in contrast to those that wish for a permanent outright ban. The general prohibition on research involving human embryos, such as is the case in Australia, prevents anyone doing research that might demonstrate that such work is safe and effective though, effectively shutting the door. In the United States there is only a prohibition for federal funding of such research so private enterprise could easily step in. Moratoria are notoriously difficult to monitor or enforce and the lure of making money or gaining fame from the research may prove to be too powerful. He might reflect that he has achieved notoriety rather than fame as a hero but reports generally paint him as ambitious and naïve, conveniently ignoring the guidelines or ethical issues rather than being actually evil in intent. After all, the intention was to augment human capacity, even though that has led to claims of ‘taking a step down the road’ of human eugenics by prominent bioethicists such as Arthur Caplan.

One of the key messages coming out of the debate is that self-regulation by scientists remains open to abuse. On the other hand, scientists argue that attempts to limit their work with increased scrutiny may be disproportionate and have a negative effect on research that may ultimately lead to improvements in human health. This is the ‘rotten apple’ argument and to some extent it is fair to be sympathetic toward it as there are good examples of how increased regulation does not necessarily improve patient or community safety. However, there is more to this debate than just regulation of laboratory activities and the issues related to what it is to be human and the consequences of manipulation that extends into augmentation or spurious characteristic selection such as eye colour or enhanced sport performance are real.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has called for international guidelines be developed and deployed by members states, forming a working party to develop these in December 2018. However, these would only be guidelines that would then have to be adopted by member countries. Importantly, the WHO panel does not envisage a permanent prohibition of embryo gene editing but stated in a media release that ‘The Committee will explore how best to promote transparent and trustworthy practices and how to ensure appropriate assessments are performed prior to any relevant work being undertaken.’ This clearly indicates that the intention is to regulate rather than prohibit future work in this area.

In many respects this is not a new ethical issue as the technology to alter the human genome has been around for many years, just not so cheap and potentially efficient. In addition, there are other applications of CRISPR that do not involve use in embryos or require a hereditary component. Somatic cell treatments for diseases such as muscular dystrophy and Beta Thalassemia have the potential to alleviate human suffering and are distinct from embryonic gene editing. It is probable that restrictions on these activities could also occur unless legislation and guidelines are careful to avoid capturing areas that are unintended. One could argue that these treatments which are aimed at people after birth should be treated in the same way as other biological therapies.

It is likely that a general prohibition of embryo manipulation for reproductive cloning will remain in most countries and some may now move to more specifically outlaw therapeutic cloning using gene editing. Many jurisdictions have looked at guidelines that prohibit this but there is little harmonization of these thus far. There is a great deal of work underway in many countries now to examine the issues and to establish appropriate pathways for regulation. AHRECS will monitor these activities and report on them as they arise.

This post may be cited as:

Zeps, N. (26  May 2019) Research Ethics and the New Gene-editing Technology. Research Ethics Monthly. Retrieved from:

A call for a national inquiry into the burden of research ethics and governance1


Adrian Barnett, Queensland University of Technology

Do we need a national inquiry into the burden of research ethics and governance in health and medical research Australia? Many Australian researchers would cry “yes!” because they have repeatedly experienced application systems that are time-consuming and illogical.

I have never met a researcher who did not think that ethics and research integrity wasn’t vitally important, but many current application systems have more to do with risk aversion than the safety of patients or the public.

This risk aversion means that millions of dollars worth of Australian researchers’ time is being wasted on submitting the same forms to multiple ethical review committees. For example, getting approvals for our group’s low-risk survey of nurses in 50 hospitals cost an estimated $348,000 in staff time and delayed the study by six months (Barnett et al 2016).

Another Australian study of 60 nationwide hospitals spent an estimated $264,000 on approvals and the researchers’ experienced puzzling variations in submission requirements and decisions about the study’s level of risk (Clay-Williams et al 2018).

Another Australian study found that the time taken to complete the ethics and governance forms for a negligible risk study took eight times longer than the actual research (Rush et al 2018).

These are not isolated experiences and the current processes are driving researchers crazy. In our recent one-day meeting on improving research quality, we asked attendees to vote on the changes most needed to improve research and reduce research waste. The idea of a national inquiry into ethics and governance was voted fourth highest out of 21 policies (the full survey results are available here).

What should a national inquiry consider? The primary question should be: why can’t we have a national system? A national system that has standardised forms and is used by every state and territory health department. A national system that covers all types of research, not just clinical trials.

An inquiry into ethics processes could have been part of the Chubb inquiry (had Labor won the election) that promised a root-and-branch examination of Australia’s overall research framework and to “ensure that Australia maintains its international competitive advantage”. Other countries use simpler approval processes and we hamper our ability to conduct research by tying up researchers in wasteful knots of unnecessary paperwork.

A national inquiry should engage with the people doing the hard work of reviewing applications on ethics committees. These people should also welcome a streamlined system that cuts-out the requirement for them to review already reviewed applications, giving them more time to focus on important ethical considerations.

Researchers should also acknowledge that some delays and duplication are their own fault. A key problem is that ethics applications can be so badly written that committee members cannot judge the ethical implications of the study.

Australian researchers want a system that improves and facilities their research, not one that puts “virtually insurmountable and costly barriers in place” (Clay-Williams et al 2018). We want a “tailored and harmonised” system (Rush et al 2018).

Many researchers have been talking about the need for change for over a decade, but have seen only small improvements and plenty of backwards steps too. A national inquiry would cost time and money, but the potential long-term savings to researchers and the public from this important reform could be enormous.

Declaration of conflicts of interest: Adrian Barnett receives funding from the National Health and Medical Research Council.


  • Rush, A., Ling, R., Carpenter, J. E., Carter, C., Searles, A., & Byrne, J. A. (2018). Research governance review of a negligible-risk research project: Too much of a good thing? Research Ethics, 14(3), 1–12.
  • Clay-Williams, R., Taylor, N. & Braithwaite, J. (2018) Potential solutions to improve the governance of multicentre health services research. Med J Aust; 208 (4): doi: 10.5694/mja16.01268
  • Barnett, A. G., Campbell, M. J., Campbell, Shield, C., Farrington, A., Hall, L., Page, K., Gardner, A., Mitchell, B.G. & Graves, N. (2016) The high costs of getting ethical and site-specific approvals for multi-centre research. Research Integrity and Peer Review 1:16

This post may be cited as:
Barnett, A. G. (22  May 2019) A call for a national inquiry into the burden of research ethics and governance. Research Ethics Monthly. Retrieved from:

Monitoring research is too important to be optional and too resource intensive to be manual0


Dr Gary Allen, Senior consultant AHRECS | Profile |

The National Statement specifies researchers submitting self-completed ethical conduct reports as the minimum acceptable institutional monitoring of approved human research projects (NS 5.5.5).  This reflects the importance of institutions monitoring the research conducted under its auspices and highlights the ethical responsibilities of researchers, and the host institution, continue beyond the research ethics review of a project.


Send an email to if you would like to discuss AHRECS conducting a Desktop Audit of your institution’s human research ethics and producing a blueprint for constructive change


Researchers providing annual self-reporting really isn’t an onerous requirement.  Except it seems it is.

Since 2008, AHRECS has been formally conducting consultancy work with research institutions.  This often includes a desktop audit of the institution’s human research ethics arrangements and then a blueprint for constructive change.  Pretty much in every case, Australian research institutions are struggling with the following challenges:

  • Many researchers are recalcitrant in their annual reporting.
  • The process of reminding researchers to provide an annual report and chasing overdue reports is time-consuming.
  • Providing reports to the HREC wastes precious meeting time, wastes paper and often doesn’t produce anything substantive.
  • The associated data entry, note taking and printing are significant burdens on an already stretched committee secretary and administrative support.

This image (without the watermark) can be download by our USD3/month subscribers –

Such observations echo what we have seen in our practice over the decades.

To summarise the recommendations we have made in those blueprints1 2:

  1. The institution’s research management system (ethics module) should at a simple click send reminders to researchers via email.
  2. Researchers should complete and submit their ethical conduct reports online with some fields automatically completed for them and validation on their response to some questions (e.g. minimum word count).
  3. Report should be considered proportionate to certain criteria administratively, executively, by a panel of the HREC, and only a small proportion of reports considered at a committee meeting.
  4. The phrasing of the automated reminders should be based upon escalating terseness depending on whether the email is the initial reminder, a 30 days overdue notice, 60 days overdue or 90 days overdue that might be considered a breach of the institution’s human research ethics arrangements (]and so a breach of the Australian Code (2018).
  5. Online reporting to the heads of department listing researchers who have ethical conduct reports due, overdue, late or very late.
  6. The institution’s research management system (ethics module) should produce automated committee papers
  7. One of the labour savings of this approach is that it is the researchers who do the data entry(rather than it being rekeyed by the research office).This burden on researchers is offset by the convenience of the online system.

In an earlier post Prof. Colin Thomson AM discusses some areas of reported HREC activity that illustrate that some institutions are failing to adhere to the requirements of the National Statement– which are arguably perhaps too lenient.l

1Our blueprints include more detailed text about ethical conduct reports including the conduct of proportional reviews and criteria for the different pathways.

2 Included here is an image that summarises this approach. Inside the subscribers’ area is a version that isn’t watermarked.

In the subscribers’ area is a rough outline for an ethical conduct report.  Clients who engage AHRECS to produce blueprint are provided the full ethical conduct report (including help text) and AHRECS can liaise with your system administrators on its deployment.  Send an email to to discuss further.


Thomson C. (2017, 22 March 2018) “More what you’d call guidelines”. Research Ethics Monthly. Retrieved from:

National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) 2007 updated 2018, National Statement on Ethical Conduct in Human Research.Available at:

National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) 2018, Australian Code for the Responsible Conduct of Research.Available at:

This post may be cited as:
Allen, G. (21  May 2019) Monitoring research is too important to be optional and too resource intensive to be manual. Research Ethics Monthly. Retrieved from:

Tracing the Patterns of Research Ethics Regulation in Taiwan0



甘偵蓉 Gan Zhen-Rong1 and 馬克·伊瑟利 Mark Israel2

Many commentators on research ethics have been based in the Global North and, when we find research ethics regulations that look very much like our own, we tend to make assumptions about the ways in which these patterns of regulation have unfolded. Apart from being disrespectful to local histories, insensitive to difference and intellectually lazy, failure to engage with the rich history of regulatory practices in different jurisdictions makes it hard for research ethicists to learn from others. That is hardly a position with which most people working in the field of research ethics would want to be associated.

In earlier editions of Research Ethics Monthly, guest posts from the Philippines have introduced developments in regulation there (Miguel, 2018). In this article, we briefly trace the growth of regulation in Taiwan. It is based on an article recently published in Developing World Bioethics (Gan and Israel, 2019). The pattern of research ethics in Taiwan reflects three distinct but interacting processes.


Transnational Policy Migration
Taiwan transitioned from an authoritarian regime towards democracy through the legalization of opposition parties in 1986 and the end of martial law in 1987. Legislative initiatives to regulate research ethics need to be understood within larger national moves towards good regulatory practice, economic growth and competitiveness and globalization on the one hand, and democratization, Taiwanese nationalism, recognition of multiculturalism and Indigenous rights on the other. Given their country’s political, economic and educational ties to the United States, it is not a surprise that Taiwanese regulators looked to that country for legislative models.

The first legislation governing human trials in Taiwan, the Medical Care Act, was passed in 1986. Subsequent enforcement rules included the Department of Health’s3 Ethical Guidelines for Human Subjects Research in 2007 and its Regulations on Human Trials in 2009 which mandated the application procedure, review criteria and information to be disclosed relating to a human trial, and the 2011 administrative regulations for the Human Biobank Management Act.

Partly in response to a series of biomedical scandals, in 2011 the Taiwan legislature passed the Human Subjects Research Act (HSRA). Before the HSRA came into effect, ethics review was only required by law for clinical trial and human biobank research. The main legislative purpose of the HSRA was to regulate biomedical, healthcare, and behavioural research involving human participants no matter where the work was to be conducted, with whom the principal investigator was affiliated, or which government department funded the research.

Interdisciplinary Policy Transfer
A series of administrative decisions championed by some social scientists, implemented by professionals with experience with health research ethics committees and reinforced by an oversight regime aligned with the biomedical sciences facilitated the extension of a particular form of research ethics regulation from biomedical sciences to other disciplines.

Until the HSRA came into effect in 2011, social scientists were only affected by the regulation of biomedical research ethics if they were funded by particular government departments or conducted research in or were employed by hospitals. Despite the stated purpose of the Act, HSRA changed that. Furthermore, there is evidence that both the legislature and the Department of Health made efforts to avoid extending the ambit of the HSRA. Ultimately, they failed. In time, a range of processes extended the regulation well beyond health sciences.

The first extension came as a result of a change in administrative rules by a government department responsible for funding social research that had already been developing initiatives around research ethics. The National Science Council4 attempted to create research ethics review processes more suitable for social research than those adopted in medical institutions. However, once the HSRA had passed, each time an initiative strayed from the requirements of HSRA the weight of the legislation and its accompanying bureaucracy pulled social science review into line with biomedical standards.
This intensification of scrutiny on social research was not imposed by biomedical organisations but by senior social scientists and legal scholars. These advocates included some who had been socialized into biomedical research ethics practices and had built up professional expertise in that area – either because they had undertaken their postgraduate work in countries like the United States where research ethics review had already been extended to the social sciences or because they had participated in health institutional review boards.

University compliance with the HSRA has been enforced by the Ministry of Education (MOE). MOE took the conservative path of adopting the oversight regulations that had already been operating for ten years at the Department of Health. MOE also invited biomedical researchers with experience of the processes of the Department of Health to support MOE’s inspection role. In turn, most universities had neither the time nor the resources to build up discipline-specific responses. Rather than hiring people with expertise in social research ethics, they appointed as committee chairs or administrative directors those who had already worked on or for biomedical research ethics committees. Application forms, standard operating procedures and resources were often generated quickly by making only minor modifications to existing biomedical resources.

The threat of government sanctions and the associated reputational damage encouraged research institutions and their ethics committees to take risk-averse positions. Some universities required all research involving human participants to follow the HSRA irrespective of methodology or discipline. In these ways, biomedical approaches to research ethics were generalized across all disciplines.

The expansion of the universalist model of research ethics has not been inexorable and was disrupted when power relations between the state and Taiwan’s Indigenous peoples changed. This moment reflected larger scale processes of democratization and Taiwanization, processes that were sometimes antagonistic towards decolonization and the struggle for Indigenous self-determination. It was also made possible by a period when Indigenous legislators held the balance of power in the national legislature and used it to formalize communal rights, rights that might be asserted when negotiating with external researchers. As a result, and partly in reaction to three biomedical scandals concerning Indigenous peoples, Article 15 of the HSRA mandated that researchers who conducted biomedical and healthcare research involving Indigenous peoples not only had to seek individual informed consent but also had to seek consent from their communities in relation to their participation, publication of research results, and commercial benefits.

The various regulations relating to group consent aimed at granting greater liberty to Indigenous communities and tribes, ensuring that conversations occurred between equals and that benefits were shared. Given the history of exploitation of Indigenous peoples in Taiwan, the prospect of strengthening the hand of Indigenous communities in negotiating with researchers is to be welcomed and could be aligned with the current government’s ongoing reconciliation efforts.

Comparative Research Ethics
Expansion of research ethics regulation from a biomedical legislative base and the existence of biomedical scandals prompting further regulatory intervention will not surprise readers in North America or Australasia, nor will the failure to attend specifically to the needs of social researchers.
However, some features of the Taiwan experience are unusual. The role of some social scientists in advocating for the regulations concerning research ethics review to be applied to social research through administrative processes is surprising given the resistance to such moves by most social scientists across the globe. Again, the constitutional position and the slowly unfolding political power of Indigenous people in Taiwan might afford them more say in how they are affected by research than might be the case in some other ‘settler nations’.

This article appears in Research Ethics Monthly with the agreement of Wiley and Sons, publishers of Developing World Bioethics.

Gan, Z-R. and Israel, M. (2019) Transnational Policy Migration, Interdisciplinary Policy Transfer and Decolonization: Tracing the Patterns of Research Ethics Regulation in Taiwan. Developing World Bioethics. DOI: 10.1111/dewb.12224

Miguel, T.D. (2018) Undue Influence in Research Between High-Income and Lower-Income Countries. Research Ethics Monthly. 27 September.

1 Member, Human Research Ethics Committee; Assistant Research Fellow, Research Center for Humanities and Social Sciences; Adjunct Assistant Professor, Center for General Education, National Cheng Kung University, Taiwan.

2 Senior Consultant, Australasian Human Research Ethics Consultancy Services.

3 The Department of Health of the Executive Yuan, the top-level administrative arm of government, was renamed as the Ministry of Health and Welfare in 2013.

4 The Department of Health of the Executive Yuan, the top-level administrative arm of government, was renamed as the Ministry of Health and Welfare in 2013.

This post may be cited as:
Gan, Z-R. and Israel, M. (24  April 2019) Tracing the Patterns of Research Ethics Regulation in Taiwan. Research Ethics Monthly. Retrieved from: