Ethics approvals streamlined

Feb 20, 2003, vol. 26, no. 4
By Carol Thorbes

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Hal Weinberg (left), SFU's director of the office of research ethics, and Barb Ralph, ethics officer, review applications for research ethics approval.

Although heated debate and numerous trips back to the drawing board marked its creation, Simon Fraser University's fledgling research ethics board (REB) is functioning smoothly.

That is Hal Weinberg's assessment of the elected board's first year of performance.

Weinberg, a SFU professor emeritus of kinesiology and the director of the office of research ethics (DORE), submitted the board's first annual report to senate, which approved it, in December 2002.

SFU, along with universities across Canada, replaced its appointed body for ethically reviewing research involving human subjects with an elected body to conform to a new Tri-Council (three federal granting council) policy.

It stipulates that universities must ensure that their researchers are honouring the rights and safety of their human research participants and that research ethics review bodies are autonomous from university interests. Since its inaugural meeting Dec. 12, 2001 until Dec. 31, 2002, SFU's 12 member REB received 386 applications for research ethics approval.

To-date it has approved all of them, deeming 375 minimal risk, meaning they only needed Weinberg's approval and ratification by the board.

The non-minimal risk applications were subject to a full board review because they were perceived to pose more than minimal risk to human research participants.

“We've received more applications this year than previously, and processed about 15 more per month, as well as course applications, than were done under SFU's old ethics review procedures,” says Weinberg.

He credits his streamlining of ethics approval for courses involving student research with human participants with making the process less onerous than expected.

“Students don't have to individually apply for ethics approval of their research if their course has been approved,” explains Weinberg. “Their instructors seek ethics approval of courses based on a description of the kind of research undertaken involving human participants, and their teaching methods with respect to ethics. That approval stands unless those two things change and it is up to the instructors to make sure their students' research complies with the approval.” The new REB approved 41 course applications in its first 12 months of operation.

Not all instructors favour the course approval system. One said, “It is overly centralized and each department, school or faculty should be responsible for ensuring ethical conduct of research by students is consistent with the code of ethics in its own disciplines.”

At its monthly meetings the REB also considers board policies that are intended to conform to and interpret Tri-Council ethics policies.

“We've already reworded eight or nine policies so that they are still in line with the Tri-Council's, but offer researchers more guidance on what they can and can't do,” says Weinberg.

“For example, Tri-Council policy says that research in the public domain isn't subject to ethics approval. We've clarified public domain to mean anything that is accessible to the public under the Freedom of Information act.”

The REB has also developed an online monitoring procedure for ensuring that ongoing research does not deviate from ethically approved protocols.

For more information about the ethics electronic application process see: website.

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