Ethics director aims to educate researchers

May 16, 2002, vol. 24, no. 2
By Carol Thorbes

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Hal Weinberg (left) first started questioning the ethics of his research 30 years ago while working as a physiological psychologist at the Burden Neurological Institute in Bristol, England.

At the time, the Simon Fraser University professor emeritus of kinesiology was doing experimental brain surgery. His goal was to help obsessive compulsive patients.

But two questions plagued Weinberg, recently appointed the director of SFU's office of research ethics. “I wondered if my patients understood the implications of multifocal lesions on their brain,” remembers Weinberg. “I also wondered how they could conceive of those implications when I had trouble understanding them myself.”

Weinberg eventually abandoned doing invasive brain surgery because of ethical concerns. He turned to studying brain function non-invasively and founded SFU's experimental psychology program in 1966.

Six years ago Weinberg crossed over from psychology to kinesiology at SFU. He eventually became director of the brain behaviour laboratory.
Regardless of his discipline or occupation, Weinberg, who is also the mayor of Anmore and a regional government representative, sees ethical questions as ubiquitous.

As director of SFU's office of research ethics, Weinberg considers one of his most important jobs to be the education of researchers about ethical issues, and the protection of subjects, third parties and communities.

Similar to his quest 30 years ago, Weinberg says, “all researchers must ask themselves, ‘How do I successfully marry the whole concept of academic freedom with the need to protect society and its individuals?' ”

One of Weinberg's key responsibilities is the approval of minimal risk research applications (non-threatening to human subjects' rights or safety), subject to monthly reviews by an elected research ethics board (REB).

The whole board must initially review and approve all applications of greater than minimal risk.

About 90 percent of SFU's research falls within the minimal risk category, but Weinberg expects the amount of greater than minimal risk research to soar.

“The Internet is increasingly being used as a research tool and SFU's prominence in genomic research is growing,” says Weinberg.
“The increasing complexity of research at SFU, the requirement for monitoring research and for educational programs in research ethics means the REB will have a lot on its plate.”

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