Striving for the highest standards in research ethics

Blog by
14 June 2017

Our new research ethics policy provides a practical framework for putting IIED's high ethical principles into practice. 

A traditional farmer in the Eastern Himalaya where indigenous communities use seed networks to protect their knowledge. Research should not publish details of traditional knowledge that could be used commercially without equitable benefit-sharing (Photo: Ruchi Pant/Ecoserve)

At IIED, we have always thought of ourselves as a morally driven organisation. We strive to live out our values of collaboration, impact and fairness in everything we do while using the principles of respect, beneficence and justice to guide our research.

Our staff are committed to promoting sustainable development, improving livelihoods and protecting the environments on which these livelihoods are built.

But sometimes it's necessary to put systems in place to make sure we are living up to our own high expectations. That is one of the reasons why IIED has spent the last year developing a new policy on research ethics (PDF), and setting up a formal research ethics committee. 

We are now ready to put these initiatives into practice, and to share them with our partners, donors and the general public.

Setting ourselves a high bar

Formally defining our approach to research ethics, and developing a policy to support this, has been a valuable exercise in helping to crystallise a shared vision across the institute of what we see as being ethically essential when carrying out research. 

Our ethics policy draws on many of the standard elements of research ethics, particularly the idea of free prior and informed consent, and the need to pay special attention to children, vulnerable adults or groups that are discriminated against. 

Many of these established ethical principles for research are intended to ensure that research subjects are not harmed in any way, particularly where they do not understand the risks they may be facing. They were developed in response to notorious clinical experiments, such as the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment that deliberately withheld life-saving penicillin from African American men in order to observe the untreated progress of syphilis. 

It is very unlikely that any of IIED's work would have such a drastic impact on the physical wellbeing of research participants. But those who participate in IIED's research may be economically and politically vulnerable − such as pavement dwellers in India who may feel uncomfortable in saying 'no' to requests to respond to questions.

Or groups who face widespread persecution such as artisanal miners – likely to suffer repercussions from more powerful political and economic actors if they are seen as becoming more organised or disrupting the status quo. Or simply the case of low-income groups who may be taken away from income-generating opportunities when asked to participate in focus groups or surveys. 

Developing our ethics policy has forced us to think more closely about the ways in which gathering information with and from environmentally and socially vulnerable groups might inadvertently cause harm – and seek not only to avoid harm, but think through how such policies can actively help us achieve positive outcomes for those we work alongside.

Tailored approach

We were fortunate to work with Dr William Avis from GSDRC at the University of Birmingham. He helped us make sure we covered all the fundamental aspects of a research ethics policy while advising us how to capture our institutional ambitions that are specific to our own organisation. 

He said: "IIED's explicit commitment to ensuring that ethical considerations inform the design and conduct of research represents a clear institutional acknowledgment of the intersection of ethics with integrity, quality and transparency throughout the research process. The policy resonates with and reinforces IIED's approach to working collaboratively, in ways that support communities' needs, respect cultural and intellectual property rights and contribute to positive, reciprocal and beneficial partnerships."

The formal structures of a research ethics form, to be completed before any project starts, and a research ethics committee, tasked with reviewing any potentially problematic cases, means we also have a system in place that satisfies the ethical review requirements of most funding bodies. 

This is all part of a process to help us demonstrate that we are carrying out the highest quality work possible, in the most responsible way. 

By continuing to develop this approach, and committing to reflect on it on an ongoing basis, we seek to bring the best of both worlds: having a practical framework in place to make sure we meet necessary standards and safeguards to ensure we do no harm, while building a culture of ethical reflection in our day-to-day work. 

David Dodman (david.dodman@iied.org) is chair of IIED's research ethics committee and director of IIED's Human Settlements research group

Share: