Ethics in research

24 November 2020
SERIES OTT Conference 2020: the 3rd online event 14 items

[The summary of this session was written by Marília Ferreira da Cunha, Digital Communications Officer at On Think Tanks.]

Think tanks do not often consider the ethical implications of their research methods. Douglas Mackay has reflected on the ethics of public policy RCTs. In his presentation, Douglas considers issues such as (lack of) consent of participants, distributive justice and other important issues.

Douglas Mackay (University of North Carolina), hosted by Norma Correa (Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú).

Key takeaways

Think tanks don’t often consider the ethical implications of their research methods. Douglas Mackay has been reflecting on the ethics of public policy randomised controlled trials (RCTs). In this session, Douglas considered several guiding principles such as (lack of) consent of participants, social value, the role of community in deciding research, and randomisation and distributive justice.

Douglas starts by pointing out that it is important to have a systematic and sustained approach to policy research ethics as there is in medical research ethics, developing methods and thinking about it as a field of research- one that is a shared and inclusive space. 

As Douglas refers, RCTs are not the only legitimate source of knowledge, this is one tool among other tools. However, to assess if they are ethical, there should be more discussion and focus on the guiding principles already mentioned.

Informed consent is one of those principles. It is an issue that needs further investigation as it is not always secured in studies. Douglas suggests that there is a need for a moratorium on policy RCTs until regulations are sorted out. Actually, the broader question is if informed consent is necessary and when. 

Social value is another of the ethical requirements for medical research ethics. The research needs to promise value to society. Should this be a requirement for policy research ethics too? 

Several of the participants in research do not get fair benefits from participating in these trials as those are not done thinking about their contexts. Douglas highlights the importance of starting to think about fair distribution linked to social value, for both medical and policy research. 

Download the slides. 

From the chatbox


The Oxford Handbook of Research Ethics


I have a more fundamental observation on the ethics of policy research: What gives think tanks or social researchers the legitimacy for policy research. Do they draw it from their accountability to their grass root constituents? How do they claim to be the voice of the community or necessarily reflect the felt-needs of the community? Is this not a fundamental ethical dilemma?

On the issue of RCTs: Is this an ethical debate about how to do RCTs ethically? Or is there an ethical dilemma about running an RCT at all? (versus generating other types of knowledge/other approaches)

Watch the video to find out how Douglas answered these questions.