Concrete steps need to be taken to create awareness and monitor the implementation of a new international code aimed at stamping out “ethics dumping,” says Dr Lyn Horn, director of the Office of Research Integrity at UCT.
The Global Code of Conduct for Research in Resource-Poor Settings (GCC) was drawn up in response to a European Commission call for action opposing double standards in international research.
‘Ethics dumping’ is the term used to describe research activities in foreign countries that would be prohibited in the researcher’s home country; especially taking advantage of the lack of awareness, regulation or enforcement in some poorer countries to conduct unethical work that is illegal in developed countries.
The University of Cape Town (UCT) was the first university to adopt the new code in April this year.
Dr Horn said the impact of the code had been “limited” to date.
“Universities, including ourselves, who have now adopted the code do need to take concrete steps to create awareness and monitor its implementation,” explained Dr Horn.
Local communities can take measures to protect themselves against ethics dumping, like the San indigenous peoples of Southern Africa.
Because of their unique genetic properties, the San are in high demand as a research population.
Following a long history of exploitation, they developed the San Code of Research Ethics and now, researchers who wish to work with the San must adhere to this code.
Examples of unethical research practices being offshored include work that imposes high risks on research participants who are unlikely to benefit from the study’s results, as might be the case in some medical trials, failing to respect cultural requirements and refusing to compensate for harm incurred during a study.
Or it might occur because of the researcher’s ignorance of local spiritual beliefs, customs or requirements in the foreign country; like when local beliefs about the sanctity of human blood mean that genetic screening which uses blood, may be viewed as an affront to the sacred aspects of life.
“Whatever the cause, the result of ethics dumping is exploitation, and the risks for exploitation are not limited to individual participants,” says Dr Kate Chatfield, the Deputy Director for the Centre of Professional Ethics at the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan).
She said the GCC fills a niche which no other code has occupied before.
It consists of 23 clear articles that help funders, researchers, communities and individuals to recognise and address potential ethical pitfalls.
It emphasises that local communities must be involved in research in meaningful ways, right from the start, and that the end results must provide benefits locally.
Any research that uses biological materials and associated information such as genetic sequence data should clarify to participants the potential monetary and non-monetary benefits that might arise, and a culturally appropriate plan to share benefits should be agreed to by all relevant stakeholders.
An EU-funded project, TRUST, identified 88 specific risks for the exploitation of individuals, communities, institutions, animals and environments.
The GCC was recently adopted by the European Commission (EC) as a mandatory reference document for applicants to Europe’s biggest research fund: Horizon 2020 and the forthcoming Horizon Europe.
Professor Doris Schroeder, director of the Centre for Professional Ethics at UCLan said the EC’s adoption of the code as mandatory for all research funded under Horizon 2020 has given the movement against ethics dumping the “best possible start.”