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Ethics: WTF is the point

Illustration by Hope McConnell.

Mention the word ‘ethics’ and ‘application’ in the same sentence and it is guaranteed that most students will immediately roll their eyes. The introduction of ethics into a research project often symbolises, to them, a whole world of pain accompanied by a massive form that has to be filled in. It’s a process that most students will have to do, but that most students don’t want to do, or don’t really understand why they need to do it.

Unfortunately, as the saying goes, ‘The Road to Hell is paved with good intentions’. Nearly everyone embarking on an undergrad or postgrad degree has every good intention. However, if things turn bad with a study or project, then quite a lot of people are going to cop it. Google the term ‘research projects that went horribly wrong’ and you will find a stack of fairly horrific results popping up. From some infamous drug trials; an elephant that died in terrible agony from an overdose of LSD; a prison experiment that turned ordinary people into sadistic, vicious versions of themselves; to monkeys that were deliberately isolated and went insane, to name a few. Only last year a university in the UK was fined $800,000 for allowing a botched research project to give students enough caffeine to fill 300 cups of coffee each. It almost resulted in their deaths and certainly meant a long spell in intensive care. Ouch!

This is of course not a great series of occurrences and not a great advertisement for university-level research, least of all for those that suffered the dreadful consequences. And it plainly highlights the need for ethical forms, no matter how dreary they may seem.

So, what are ethics?

Ethics are defined in the dictionary as ‘moral principles that govern a person’s behaviour’. In fact, historically ethics go back as far as such philosophers as Plato, Aristotle and Socrates. Many philosophers since have toyed with and attempted to define principles of behaviour that might be termed ethical conduct. They argue that people survive better if they follow good and thus ethical principles and rules.

So, what exactly does that mean? For most people being moral or ethical means doing the right thing – acting for the greatest good. For most of us that means we don’t go around doing stuff like robbing people, burning down their houses, vandalism, murder and so on, and that we generally behave in a civilised and upright fashion. Like it or not we all follow one or more moral codes. Even criminals, you may be surprised to learn, have their own codes, such as don’t grass up your mates and don’t sell drugs on another person’s patch. Putting that sort of bad stuff aside, codes of ethics appear in every walk of life and particularly businesses and things like the medical profession. The codes of ethics are there for two main reasons. The first is to reassure other people that all the best intentions are being followed, and the second is because of all the times people have cocked up in the past with dreadful consequences.

Students who share accommodation will find that they soon get tired of things like their mates leaving dirty dishes in the sink, not cleaning the bath after they use it and picking up people’s crap from the living space floor. So pretty soon a list of ‘House Rules’ appears on the wall, or in other words, a code of ethics for the house. People start being interviewed before they can become a tenant and told about the ‘rules’ to test their reactions. Some places even make them sign something to say they will follow the rules. So you see, that, in a nutshell, is ethics in practice: the writing of the code, the application process, the approval and then following of a code of ethics.

Ethics, the university and you

Rewind all of this to a university setting and several thousand students doing projects and research and you’ve just maxed out the house rules problem a gazillion times. How can the university ensure that students are not going to traumatise somepoor unsuspecting people while testing out whether a terrified response to spiders is affected by the size of the spider? Or that the ‘psychopathic clown art show’ isn’t going to mean the university has to fork out thousands of dollars in counselling fees? Or perhaps the study as to whether a complete novice can grind down a railing on a skateboard isn’t going to mean many visits to the Emergency Department in a hospital? I could go on making up extreme examples, but you get the point. Any project that goes badly wrong is going to have consequences for everyone involved, from the Vice Chancellor, the Dean, the Head of Department, the Lecturer, you and of course, the research subjects be they human, animal or even plants. The thing is that while you can’t totally ensure someone isn’t going to do something stupid, you can still give it a damn good try. Ethics is the university version of trying to stop intelligent people doing dumb things.

Far from wanting to be the bane of everybody’s lives, the ethics department at the university is not only trying to protect people from their own folly but also the reputation of the university. Imagine the field day that The New Zealand Herald will have with your project if it results in a newsworthy disaster? You can see the headlines now: ‘Woman traumatised for life by botched AUT Psycho Clown Study’ or ‘CBD brought to standstill by Pig on Ecstasy, what is AUT playing at?’ If you survive that, and you graduate, and off you go to your first job interview, the first question is probably going to be: “Didn’t you do that crazy clown study at AUT?” It follows you around for years like a stalker. Questions get asked in government departments, and every time AUT goes for more funding, guess what will get brought up and your name with it? As attractive as it may be to be infamous, nobody really wants that.

The benefits of ethics

So, in order to prevent said disasters and many other minor mishaps even, the university has a code of ethics for research and an ethics department to make sure it gets followed. The ethics committee is there to examine all applications and ensure that nothing bad is likely to happen, or if it might, then everyone involved has already thought it through. It’s not that there can’t be cutting-edge research or even ‘edgy’ research but that it’s done in a controlled way where everyone has mitigated the risks and knew what they were. Then in the end, even if it does all go a little pear-shaped, everyone can say that they followed the procedures and took every precaution that they could. See how this works? It’s also there to teach ethical research so that those principles will hopefully guide any research you do in the future once you are unleashed upon the world.

So, ethics, in a nutshell, is really there for your own good and everyone else’s good. The ethics advisors are there to help and very helpful they are too in my experience. Of the many hoops you will have to jump through to get your degree, ethics is just one of them. Maybe, to some people, that hoop is more like a ring of fire but at least with your research ethics in place you hopefully won’t burn the house down.

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