The pandemic continues to have a major impact on the financial sustainability of Australian universities including its research and development income and expenditure. The Federal government is a major investor in higher education and research but so are the universities themselves, using international student fees (approximately 24% of university revenue) to cross-subsidise government investment in research, accounting for half of their annual spending on research prior to the pandemic (Norton, 2020; Yezdani, 2021; Larkins and Marshman, 2021). Hence when the borders closed it threw universities into a financial crisis. Despite a $1 billion COVID-related boost, the 2021 federal budget was largely unsupportive of universities, and despite international travel reopening international student revenue may continue to decline (Larkins and Marshman, 2021; Hurley, Hoang and Hildebrandt, 2021). This has pushed universities to reassess business models and leverage research revenue from other sources such as industry (Mondschein, Roy and Naidoo, 2021). The need to increase collaboration with industry was reinforced by Alan Tudge, Federal Minister for Education and Youth, whose speech to universities pushed for translation and commercialisation of research, incentivising Government partnerships for universities who are “bold and ambitious” and who want “to get ahead of the game” (Tudge, 2021).
So, what does that mean for ethics? Universities are often criticised for operating at a different pace to industry and, increasingly, I have heard researchers engaged in industry-facing research say the ethics process is seen as slow, not competitive and that we risk our reputation if we do not meet deliverables on time. This critique is not unique to ethics, indeed any university process that appears to delay or hinder a researcher from getting on with their work can be seen as unnecessary red tape. Yet, there is significant value that comes with doing research with a university, and that is the university’s reassurance that the work is ethically robust; it is one of the things that sets us apart from less legislated providers. We rely heavily on the support from our communities and the wider society who have implicit trust in universities and its researchers to conduct research responsibly and ethically. So, while we want to support industry engagement we cannot risk compromising our standards. This raises the question: How do we “get ahead of the game”? What does “bold and ambitious” mean from an ethics lens? How do we ensure our ethics processes are ‘fit for purpose’ and able to adapt to change? Perhaps we need to ask ourselves a number of basic questions.
- How do we define research? In Australia, the definition of research is taken from the Australian Code of Responsible Conduct of Research. Additionally, universities might have variations within their policy. Complications arise when non-research activities are labelled as research, and when research activities are incorrectly labelled as non-research activities, resulting in projects being reviewed when they need not be, being subjected to excessive scrutiny, or inappropriately bypassing review. This risks reputational damage to the institution and its researchers, harm to participants, can impact on project timelines and provoke unnecessary tension between researchers and the review process.
- What are the ‘must dos’ or the minimum standard required to stay legislatively compliant? Are there any risks to taking a minimum-requirement approach, such as harm to participants, loss of reputation and risks to future funding? What does a ‘gold standard’ ethics process looks like in this highly engaged environment? The National Statement on Ethical Conduct in Human Research sets the standards for ethics review and conduct of research. Are the review processes proportional to those standards, or has there been ‘ethics creep’ (Haggerty, 2004)? If so, how do we address this?
- Do we have the capacity and systems to meet the challenge? This might require a holistic review of university human research ethics arrangements (e.g. by external independent experts/reviewers) and consideration of a completely different approach to traditional ethics reviews. At my institution, UTS, which already enjoys a very high level of industry and other end user research engagement, we have been encouraging researchers to contact us as soon as possible when engaging in contract negotiations so we can provide feedback on a draft proposal or draft ideas, well before an application is submitted to the HREC. However, contract research is often formulated rapidly, so this might mean the usual ‘back and forth’ review will not be fit for purpose even with our support. Rather than looking at how a traditional ethics process can accommodate such research, it might be more helpful to consider a completely new rapid-response process able to operate in a more agile way. This type of review also requires researcher capacity-building, and stakeholder consultation to ensure there is a shared understanding of the problem, and to ensure stakeholder adoption of adapted processes (if that is the outcome). This includes HRECs, who should be informed of the university’s strategy and the need to acknowledge a shift in the university’s approach.
- Do we (researchers, HRECs and Ethics Secretariat) have the necessary skills and capabilities to carry out and support ethically robust research across the various types of engagement and end user expectations? A well-prepared ethics application has a significantly higher chance of being approved outright, expediting the turnaround time. Likewise, a well-trained HREC is an essential component of an effective review process. Is the institution providing sufficient support to capability and development in this space? Does the institution’s culture support reflective and reflexive ethics thinking?
- What is needed to implement change to be ‘fit for purpose’? A major change to existing ethics arrangements and processes requires openness to change, communication between and buy-in from all stakeholders at each stage of the process (researchers, administrators, reviewers and senior leaders), and tangible support to facilitate change, e.g. funding and staff support to implement recommendations from a review. It also requires acknowledgement that some changes take time. Perseverance and patience help.
However we approach the ongoing challenge of being ‘fit for purpose’, we must not lose sight of the desired outcomes. Even the smallest changes can have a significant impact, and it might take a few iterations of a process to get it right before we need to reassess and adapt to meet new and unexpected challenges.
Haggerty, K.D. (2004). Ethics Creep: Governing Social Science Research in the Name of Ethics. Qualitative Sociology 27, 391–414. https://doi.org/10.1023/B:QUAS.0000049239.15922.a3.
Hurley, P., Hoang, C., Hildebrandt, M. (2021). Australian investment in higher education. Mitchell Institute, Victoria University. Melbourne. https://www.vu.edu.au/sites/default/files/australian-investment-in-higher-education-2021-mitchell-institute.pdf.
Larkins, F. and Marshman, I. (2020, May 13). Big spending ‘recovery budget’ leaves universities out in the cold. The Conversation. Retrieved January 17, 2022 from https://theconversation.com/big-spending-recovery-budget-leaves-universities-out-in-the-cold-160439.
Mondschein, J., Roy, R., Naidoo, V. (2021, May 4). Our unis are far behind the world’s best at commercialising research. Here are 3 ways to catch up. The Conversation. Retrieved January 17, 2022 from https://theconversation.com/our-unis-are-far-behind-the-worlds-best-at-commercialising-research-here-are-3-ways-to-catch-up-159915.
Norton, A. (2020, June 15). Why did universities become reliant on international students? Part 5: The rise of research rankings. Andrew Norton. Retrieved January 17, 2022, from https://andrewnorton.net.au/2020/06/15/why-did-universities-become-reliant-on-international-students-part-5-the-rise-of-research-rankings/.
Tudge, A. (2021, February 26). Lifting the impact of universities to strengthen Australia’s future. Retrieved January 17, 2022 from https://ministers.dese.gov.au/tudge/lifting-impact-universities-strengthen-australias-future.
Yezdani, O. (2021). Which universities are best placed financially to weather COVID? The Conversation. Retrieved January 17, 2022 from https://theconversation.com/which-universities-are-best-placed-financially-to-weather-covid-154079.
This post may be cited as:
Laugery, R. (10 April 2022) The challenge of being ‘fit for purpose’ Research Ethics Monthly. Retrieved from: https://ahrecs.com/the-challenge-of-being-fit-for-purpose/