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Australasian Human Research Ethics Consultancy Services Pty Ltd (AHRECS)

Requesting your input0

 

We’re preparing to work on a new version of the subscribers’ area, so we’d appreciate hearing your thoughts and ideas.

Some of you have told us you’d like to subscribe, but your institution’s accounting rules don’t allow for open ended online subscriptions.  Some subscribers have told us that it would be helpful if the listed items were better organised.

We agree, but the Patreon platform doesn’t provide the kind of flexibility to make these kinds of sensible changes.

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Reflections on chairing a human research ethics committee0

 

Prof Colin Thomson AM

Chairing an HREC can be complicated, demanding, stressful and tiring but also stimulating, rewarding, satisfying and hugely enjoyable. In this article, I reflect on my experience of being a chair of four HRECs in universities, public health organisations and public sector agencies. Of course I accept, from watching a number of other committees, the ways chairs guide committees to their decisions vary widely, express different personal experiences and can be affected by an institutional environment. As a result, these reflections are not intended to appear as a set of instructions for other chairs.

 

The invitation

So, where to begin? One point is at the invitation: am I equipped to take on this role and what do I need to know about the committee and the institution it advises? An HREC chair requires some exposure and familiarity with the ideas that are central to the ethics of human research and a sense of what reaching a decision in an ethics review requires. Ethics committees are unlike typical administrative committees in some significant aspects. The central difference is the nature of the subject matter and the decisions that need to be made: of their nature, they are less definitive than administrative decisions but share, with those, the need for adequate reasons and justification. In this tension between ethical judgement and adequate justification lies their challenge.

AHRECS offers a coaching service for Chairs (and for HRECs/RECs).  This involves observations of 3 committee meetings, meetings with specialist  consultants and a written report. Email coaching@ahrecs.com to find out more.

Other personal considerations include not only do I have the time but what is important to me in the role? For me, this has not been one consideration but a blend. The intellectual challenge of sound ethical analysis, appreciation of the creativity and skill of good research design and the refinement of inter-personal skills: all harnessed toward enabling ethically sound human research.

 

Decision-making

HREC decisions are rarely clear approvals or rejections but tend to be conditional: of the ‘not yet approved’ kind. Notification of those decisions should provide clear reasons and  practical advice: committees show respect for researchers by providing reasons for the outcome and advice about responding. At the same time, outcomes should fairly reflect the position that the committee has come to – and this can be difficult.

I have always found it challenging recapping and summarising fairly and accurately what different members of the committee have said and blending those into a reasonably clear outcome that the HREC can agree to at the meeting. Doing so is much easier after the meeting when settling the minutes and providing advice to applicants. But are such clarifications what the committee has agreed to or are they expressing a chair’s preference for the outcomes?

One discussion strategy that I watched with admiration in in one committee and tried, with some success, to emulate was to follow the same order of issue category for each proposal:

  1. does the proposal have value and validity and, if not, what do we need to know to be satisfied that it does?
  2. what risks to participants or others does the project involve; how is it planned they will be mitigated and are we satisfied with the level of mitigated risk?
  3. how are participants being recruited and how is their consent being sought, gained and recorded?
  4. are there issues of fairness in the imposition of burdens of participation on a particular population?

This worked well because members who, for example, would always have questions about consent, knew that they did not need to raise them at the start of the discussion of that proposal because that subject matter would be addressed in due course.

It also made it easier to recap the committee’s discussion. Sometimes it can be useful to do this at the conclusion of the discussion of each category – doing so meant that I did not have to remember all that was said 15 minutes ago or rely on notes taken while I was listening. Further, I found that it could be as inclusive as starting with an open invitation for ‘any comments’ and also avoided disordered and repetitive discussion.

I did find that acceptance of such a structure by a committee used to lack of structure took longer and required constant reinforcement. I came to realise that it was practice, rather than prescription, that generated acceptance of the strategy but maintained a relaxed and comfortable informality.

 

Working with an HREC

Here, a skill that comes with getting to know a committee well is knowing who to refer to, of whom to ask questions, who is likely a waste time with irrelevant matters and how to courteously persuade them to desist. These are generic chairperson skills but the nature of discussion at an ethics committee can make them more sensitive because ethics opens a wide arena for personal yet legitimate and relevant opinions. Dismissing one of these requires tactical use of reasoned ethical analysis lest it be treated as merely personal.

A central feature of an effective chair is to have the ongoing confidence and support of all members of the HREC, even if there are differences of opinion as to proposed outcomes of a review. I have chosen not to introduce each application with my own analysis and my recommended conclusions. My preference has been for discussion and development of a consensus view rather than to aim for an outcome that, in anticipation, I would have preferred. Doing so reduces the risk of closing down discussion and, depending on the relative status or perceived status of the chair vis-vis other members, chilling some members’ input.

I learned very early that I lacked depth in a number of perspectives that are intended to be reflected in the composition of the committee. This is of central importance: the decision is a decision of the whole committee and one that the whole committee can agree to. Frequently, the outcome I foresaw in reviewing an application in preparation for a meeting was not the one that the HREC reached. In preparing for meetings, as a result of these experiences, I would identify issues that, in my view, needed more attention from the researcher but I learned to remain open to other issues that had not occurred to me.

Following a meeting in which such an outcome is reached, the ongoing challenge is to explain to an often disgruntled researcher why the committee reached that view and why further refinement or modification of the application is needed for approval. Here, the burden often falls on the chair and the HREC executive officer. However, where the difference between a researcher and the committee lies in, for example, the traditions of the research discipline involved, I have tried to include the appropriate researcher member of the HREC in order to demonstrate respect to the researcher and to the committee.

There is a tension between the authority that a chair is often seen to have and the humility that a chair needs to bring to the role. The authority of the chair is not the same as the authority of the committee, even if some researchers think that it is or should be. Because it is essential that a committee be seen to be the decision-maker, explaining those decisions often requires more input than just from the chair.

 

The background of a chair

Would these challenges be reduced if, unlike me, chairs were also active researchers? From a committee point of view a researcher-chair is likely to generate considerable respect from the members of the HREC but, because of her very expertise, may also chill contributions from those with far less research awareness. From an institutional point of view, appointment of a researcher does add status to the committee which is, in many people’s eyes, essentially a research activity. However, any researcher chair will have disciplinary boundaries and it can be difficult to represent the committee’s ‘not yet approved’ decisions to researchers from completely different fields. In my experience, this has generated unintended tensions for some chairs.

This raises another more general issue as to whether a chair should be an institutional employee or external to the institution. There are benefits and shortcomings in each. An internal chair will know the institutional landscape and culture and can bring stature to the committee: the appointment itself can testify to the importance that the institution attaches to the HREC. The shortcomings will often be related to research fields, as noted above. For external chairs, the degree of independence can also add to the status of the HREC, particularly where the reputation, professional status or achievements of the chair can signal to committee members and researchers the importance the institution places on the committee’s role. On the other hand, an external chair will usually have limited knowledge of an institution, of its ethos and its culture and this can limit effective communication: particularly in outreach activities.

Beyond the HREC processes, chairs can make significant and valuable contributions to an institution’s research culture by representing the HREC at governing body meetings; participating in outreach activities to promote awareness of (and debunk myths about) a committee and participate in professional development in human research ethics.

 

Enjoying meetings

My final comment echoes the final quality that I suggested at the beginning of this short reflection. HREC meetings should be enjoyable: it is a place where thoughtful, committed and articulate people come together and, so long as they respect and are willing to listen to one another’s points of view, can be an environment in which intelligent and enjoyable, even light-hearted (but not cynical), conversation adds to the fulfilment of an important and worthwhile role.

Contributor
Prof. Colin Thomson AM | Senior Consultant AHRECS | AHRECS profile | colin.thomson@ahrecs.com

This post may be cited as:
Thomson, C. (23 April 2019) Reflections on chairing a human research ethics committee. Research Ethics Monthly. Retrieved from: https://ahrecs.com/human-research-ethics/reflections-on-chairing-a-human-research-ethics-committee

Why do we need Category D appointments on HRECs and how should we find suitable people?0

 

Judith C S Redman

The compulsory presence of the Category D members on Australian Human Research Ethics Committees (HRECs) can be controversial. Category D used to be termed ‘minister of religion’ and most HRECs recruited ordained Christian ministers to fill these roles, although at least one of the Monash University HREC Category D members has been a rabbi (recruited by me). People question the need for a ‘religious perspective’ on HRECs, especially on those that regularly look at research concerning issues like abortion, contraception or euthanasia, or stem-cell research where ‘the Church’ is seen to have negative stances. I am a Uniting Church minister and a long-term university chaplain, which makes me a prime target for recruitment to the Category D position on university HRECs. I am currently in my 18th year as a Category D appointment, serving my fourth university. Clearly, it is something I find interesting and rewarding and I would like to offer some comments on the nature of the position.

First, referring to the category as ‘minister of religion’ is misleading, because the role is not to provide a religious perspective per se. ‘Minister of religion’ was included as a category (along with lay woman, lay man and member external to the institution) in the First Report by the NH&MRC Working Party On Ethics in Medical Research published in 1982 (p 20) and incorporated into the first National Statement published in 1983. In the 1999 version of the National Statement, the position was listed as: ‘at least one member who is a minister of religion, or a person who performs a similar role in a community such as an Aboriginal elder’ (NHMRC, 1999, p 16 – emphasis mine), thus hinting that it was not the minister’s religious perspective that was being sought. In fact, even when Australian society was far less multi-faith than it is today, no one clergy-person could provide a representative religious perspective. The 2007 National Statement made the purpose more overt in describing the category as ‘at least one person who performs a pastoral care role in a community, for example, an Aboriginal elder, a minister of religion’ (NHMRC, 2007 p 81). This wording has carried across to the current revision. (NHMRC, 2018 p 87).

What, then, is it that Category D members of HRECs bring to meetings? What is pastoral care? Finding a simple definition is somewhat challenging but Grove (2004, p. 34) defines it as ‘all measures to assist an individual person or a community reach their full potential, success and happiness in coming to a deeper understanding of their own humanness’. Pastoral carers are not therapists, but they do come into contact with human beings at high and low points of their lives. Often, however, they see more every-day lows than those that typically cause people to make appointments with therapists – and very few people will pay a therapist to share joys. They do, however, come to congregational clergy and Aboriginal elders to share the joy of the birth of a child and to mark other rites of passage within the life of their communities. Pastoral carers thus have insights into how people make meaning in their lives that many other people are not privileged to share. They can therefore offer broader perspectives on how participants might respond to some kinds of research than can many other HREC members.

Second, ‘the Church’ does not have a uniform perspective on biomedical ethical issues. While some denominations have specific stances on abortion, contraception, euthanasia, stem-cell research and so on, others do not. In my own denomination, most forms of contraception are widely accepted although some, such as the ‘morning after pill’ would divide members and clergy alike. Abortion, euthanasia and stem-cell research are all controversial, with Uniting Church members and clergy holding a range of opinions very close to the spread found in the wider community. It is therefore not possible to assume that any given Christian minister of religion will be against this kind of research as a matter of principle. This would also be true for pastoral carers from other world religions. Further, it is my experience as someone who has worked in a multicultural and multifaith university environment for several decades that while the things that divide religions are the things we notice most, we have far more in common than things that divide us. A fundamental part of most religions is an attempt to help people to understand what it means to be human, so someone with pastoral care experience from within a religious context can offer valuable insights into the human condition that are not bound by the teachings of her or his religion. They may well, for instance, have supported people making difficult decisions about biomedical ethical issues and have a better insight into whether the researchers have put appropriate measures in place for support of participants.

In addition, ministers of religion are not the only people on HRECs whose perspectives are shaped by religion. I have certainly known people serving in other roles on HRECs whose faith positions affect how they view some of the applications we are considering. The religious perspectives of Category D members are more likely to be overt, but any member of a HREC should declare a conflict of interest if s/he holds a faith/moral position that would not allow her/him to approve particular research no matter how well it complied with the National Statement. It is also quite likely that ministers of religion have studied ethics at a tertiary level as part of their ministry training.

Thus, I would argue that people with experience in providing pastoral care bring a unique and valuable perspective to the deliberations of HRECs, as long as they are selected with a little care. If you are responsible for recruiting members and biomedical research involving abortion, euthanasia, contraception or stem cell research and/or research around human sexuality and sexual orientation come up regularly in your business, you need to address the issues in your recruitment of Category D members. Although members of some religious groups are more likely to have problems with these issues, you cannot predict how a particular pastoral carer might react based on his or her religious group’s official policy. If you are replacing a Category D appointee or recruiting an extra one, the current one may be able to suggest colleagues that s/he thinks might be suitable. If you are setting up a new committee, the Category D appointees on nearby committees might have some ideas about suitable people. Some pastoral carers might even be willing to belong to more than one committee as long as the agendas are not too long and the meeting dates do not clash. In the end, however, you need to inform potential appointees about the kinds of issues you regularly deal with and ask them if they see any problem about their being able to assess these kinds of applications objectively. You also need to ensure that they understand that they are being recruited for their pastoral care experience not to provide a religious perspective. Taking these two steps should see your committee well served by your Category D appointments as they offer their particular perspectives on the applications before you.

We would like to build upon Judith’s excellent post about the pastoral position in future editions with similar commentaries about other positions.  Please contact us on HREC_members@ahrecs.com to discuss.

References

Grove, M. (2004). The Three R’s of Pastoral Care: Relationships, Respect and Responsibility. Pastoral Care in Education, 22(2), 34-38. doi:10.1111/j.0264-3944.2004.00261.x.

National Health and Medical Research Council (Australia) (1982). First Report By NHMRC Working Party on Ethics In Medical Research: Research in Humans. National Health and Medical Research Council, Canberra, ACT.

National Health and Medical Research Council (Australia) (1999). National Statement on Ethical Conduct in Research involving Humans. National Health and Medical Research Council, Canberra, ACT.

National Health and Medical Research Council (Australia) (2007). National Statement on Ethical Conduct in Human Research. National Health and Medical Research Council, Canberra, ACT.

National Health and Medical Research Council (Australia) (2018). National Statement on Ethical Conduct in Human Research, updated 2018. National Health and Medical Research Council, Canberra, ACT.

Contributor
Rev Dr Judith C S Redman, Chaplaincy Coordinator, Charles Sturt and La Trobe Universities, Albury-Wodonga Campuses | jredman@csu.edu.au

This post may be cited as:
Redman, JCS (27 March 2019) Why do we need Category D appointments on HRECs and how should we find suitable people? Research Ethics Monthly. Retrieved from: https://ahrecs.com/human-research-ethics/why-do-we-need-category-d-appointments-on-hrecs-and-how-should-we-find-suitable-people

We’re working with a talented animator0

 

Gary Allen, Mark Israel, Colin Thomson

We are pretty excited to be working with an animation company on a couple of projects. Attached is an animation we commissioned that we will be using at the opening of our workshops and events. Please let us know what you think of it.

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Drop us a line to enquiry@ahrecs.com if you want to discuss how AHRECS can assist your institution.

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