Playing Catch-Up: Ethics in Life Sciences

As preparations for the Research Ethics Conference (REC) 2021 kick off, I thought it was time to discuss one of the most critical disciplines in ethics – the life sciences.

Ethics has never been as important as it is now. While academic, governmental, and other organisations have ethics committees and protocols in place, research ethics can sometimes run the danger of becoming a tick-box exercise or generally being underplayed, especially with financial and time constraints. These committees can also find themselves 'playing catch-up' with regulations, due to the rapid progress of research and new methodologies and discoveries that we have to regulate for the first time.

As a life scientist myself, an example that jumps to mind is stem cell research. Since the first use of human embryos for culture in 1998, stem cells have become objects of bioethical controversy. Even though these developments can save many lives from previously untreatable maladies, regulations and laws into laboratory use, storage and applications have had to change rapidly as the research pushes forward. Even since the law has become better established, multiple papers and comments on stem cell research ethics continue to be published (one example here).

This fits within one of the focuses of REC. When using tissue samples, such an embryo or organ, how have you considered the source and if they have been ethically obtained? How are you making sure your samples ‘last’, reducing the need for collecting more? Was the biopsy taken from a live organism, following a natural death, or following an artificial death - and how did you maintain this was ethical?

Human participant in a life science study

Additionally, research in the life sciences can involve engaging with human participants. Ethical dilemmas come in to play here, too. Age, class, race, gender, sexuality, and geography may affect the way in which you interact with a participant and impact the results. And, as with all work with people, what does ‘informed consent’ mean in practice, and how can you obtain it ethically?

Another big focus is animals in research. This is a huge moral issue for a lot of people, and the use of the animal must be justified.

Is the research conducted on the target animal (e.g., human, shrimp, livestock) or a model organism (e.g., nematodes, Drosophila, mouse)? Consider how these animals fit under Animals Scientific Procedures Act (ASPA) 1986, and whether they are sentient and considered capable of feeling pain. Work by the organisation NC3R (Replacement, Reduction and Refinement) of animals in research can assist in finding the best way for researchers to move forward if they are unsure.

Some final points to think about:

  • When dealing with secondary data, where does this data come from? How was it collected? Is the organisation or institutional body that conducted the research trustworthy?

  • Who is funding the research, and are their goals ethical?

  • How does the researchers' own subjectivity affect data collection and analysis?

REC will also have a theme of "decolonising ethics". In the last few years, debates around decolonising research and decolonial methodologies have been progressively gaining traction. Questions arise in relation to the traditional roles of researcher / participant, pre-existing power relationships, and the inclusion of the voices of those who have historically been silenced.

Yes, there is a lot to think about in terms of ethics in the life sciences! REC hopes to break these down and inspire discussion, from general practises right down your own research.

Find me on Twitter @rebekah_jwhite. Thanks to Maria Jose Ventura Alfaro for assisting with the content of this article.

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