Safeguarding the public interest in research

by Dr Andrew Cleland

Dr Andrew Cleland
Chief Executive
Royal Society of New Zealand

by Dr Andrew Cleland

Chief Executive

Royal Society of New Zealand

The term “ethics” is widely used, but can have a variety of meanings. The definition used by the professions is of a set of moral standards above the law, self-imposed on members of the profession. Professionals’ duty to the public interest can transcend their responsibilities to those who employ them. Knowing the profession itself will deal with poor performance amongst its members, the public choose to trust the profession.

The research community is not a profession. What researchers have in common is that they work to extend the frontiers of knowledge.

It takes time to assimilate the implications of new knowledge, and work out what a wider societal response should be. Centralised regulatory systems inevitably lag behind the discovery of new knowledge.

For example, driverless cars exist, but the debate about their regulation has barely begun. The ethical dilemma of choosing who to kill or injure (driver or pedestrian) when an unavoidable crash is recognised is one that needs a wider ethical debate than can be had in a regulatory organisation or ministry. It is an international issue, just as is the decision on how long gene-edited human embryos can be allowed to grow in the interests of science.

Given that regulation is not likely to protect the public interest when moral dilemmas arise in research, what actually does? Historically, we have relied on public institutions like universities and government-owned research organisations to make decisions that are in the public interest. The Cartwright Inquiry into the research at National Women’s Hospital is the best known example in New Zealand of where protection of the public interest in such institutions was questioned. Protective systems are now in place to ensure good standards when researchers work with human subjects and animals (researchers obtain permission from what are called ethics committees).

However, global statistics on research integrity are disturbing – the number of paper retractions steadily increases, and there are concerns about the repeatability by others of reported results. These are symptoms, in part, of an intensely competitive world for research funding and for personal recognition. Whilst a competitive system is by no means bad, there is a need to ensure that good quality research practices are not circumvented.

Worldwide, compared to the professions, the self-regulatory approaches in research communities are relatively weak. Often the role of protecting the public interest is often vested with the employer of the researchers concerned, or their publisher. Whilst they may in fact do a good job, their performance may well be enhanced by the inclusion of independent lay people in investigations with the power to issue dissenting opinions.

Fortunately in New Zealand, reported failures are still rare but we cannot assume New Zealand is immune. The Royal Society of New Zealand works with others to maintain the integrity of New Zealand research.

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