By Gary Allen and Kim Gifkins
A common urban myth when Robert McCulloch bought London Bridge in 1968 was that the millionaire thought he was buying the more iconic Tower Bridge. The US$2,460,000 he spent purchasing it, plus the expensive shipping and re-construction costs, were an example of the more money than sense approach that the Brits considered their US cousins to be plagued by.
The story was an urban myth; it was false. McCulloch knew he was buying London Bridge and bought it for a very different purpose – to attract real estate investment. Indeed, it was initially reconstructed in the US on land, with the ‘river’ beneath it only added later.
Nevertheless, it is perhaps a useful metaphor when we think about the typical national approach to the governance of ethical conduct in human research.
The atrocities perpetrated by Nazi scientists and the researchers behind Tuskegee (and the Guatemala STD research before that) were used to justify the Nuremberg Code, the Belmont Report and the Declaration of Helsinki – with all the national research ethics standards and regulations that have flown from them.
The costs of establishing and operating (as well as insuring) research ethics committees, the practicalities of operating research ethics review arrangements as well as the time and effort researchers expend obtaining ethics approval, were all justified so that we will not repeat the awful acts, crimes, the missteps, and mistakes of the past.
It is a worthy objective, where the cost, time and frustration are justified by the results.
But are we actually getting what we paid for? Are we justified in using this history in our approach to professional development for human research ethics? McCulloch and his team were aware of the Tower Bridge rumour, but rather than countering it, viewed it as generating publicity for their endeavour. Are we also guilty of using history to publicise why ethical conduct is a worthy goal?
Cases like Emotional Contagion, the Rogue Herpes Trial, OkCupid, Cambridge Analytica etc still happen. Indeed, genuinely bad actors may not even submit their work, or at least not honestly, for research ethics review.
Habitually referring to cases like Milgram, Stanley and Humphreys does not shock or motivate our researchers to regard ethical responsibilities as something they need to embed into their practice. They are cases that justify the establishment of research ethics processes and perhaps the time and effort they will need to expend obtaining ethics approval for their work. Use of these cases and the earlier atrocities ad nauseum to develop ethical thinking can be at best boring and at worst irrelevant and a distraction.
It is unlikely the majority of researchers will need to be convinced the historical bad acts were wrong and morally reprehensible.
But it is also unlikely that they would equate those acts, motives or behaviours to their own work and plans – or even their research discipline.
If we try to do so without thought, we are missing the mark, risk insulting responsible researchers and failing to do anything useful with everybody’s time.
Instead, our objective should be:
- Show how attention to the ethical principles will assist a researcher to conduct work that is respectful to, and inclusive of participants.
- How it can improve the impact of a project.
- How it can address structural inequalities, discrimination and exclusion.
- Show how it can enhance the perceived value of a project.
- Illustrate how it can reduce the chances participants and others complain about their research.
- How (and perhaps most significantly) it can improve the quality and the reliability of the data generated/collected/accessed.
The reason for the City of London selling the bridge was that it was unable to cope with the increased traffic and was sinking into the Thames. Today, reconstructed in the US, it is part of a thriving community and Arizona’s third most popular tourist attraction.
So perhaps, the question is not whether we have bought the right bridge, it is the bridge’s purpose, and whether people use it to cross the river – or would prefer to take the ferry.
The bridge that crossed an ocean (And the man who moved it)
This post may be cited as:
Allen, G. & Gifkins, K. (21 September 2021) When it come to the approach to human research ethics, did we buy London Bridge thinking it was Tower Bridge?. Research Ethics Monthly. Retrieved from: https://ahrecs.com/when-it-comes-to-the-approach-to-human-research-ethics-did-we-buy-london-bridge-thinking-it-was-tower-bridge/