Ethics and integrity research showcase

On 30 September 2014 OREI together with the University’s Department of Microbiology and Immunology hosted Beyond Compliance 2014: Ethics and Integrity Research Showcase. Featuring presentations by recipients of funding awarded via the 2013 Ethics and Integrity Development Grants (EIDG) scheme, this event celebrated recent innovations to advance principles of ethics and integrity in research and teaching at the University of Melbourne.

Showcase is…
A. An essential partner for Game of Thrones viewing in Australia
B. Synonymous with circa-1990s Larry Emdur
C. Pride of place on the OREI event calendar

Correct answer: C.
* Homage nonetheless paid to Larry Emdur and ‘90s game shows throughout this piece

Chaired by Pro Vice-Chancellor (Research Capability) Professor Julie Willis, the event celebrated work undertaken across a range of disciplines and launched the 2014 round for funding.

Get set, it’s time to come on down!

Presentations – in no particular order, and taking no cues from general Showcase Showdown conventions of ranking items from lowest to highest in value – included:

‘Improving ethics and integrity of aboriginal research by establishing a Yorta Yorta Community Ethics Advisory Group’
Presented by Mr Peter Ferguson and Ms Raelene Nixon

This research group is currently working towards establishing a Yorta Yorta Ethics Advisory Committee. The function of this Committee will be to advise upon research proposed to be undertaken in the local Shepparton region.

The need for establishing this Committee grew from recognition that research activity conducted in the region has often been done on the Aboriginal community, as opposed to with the community. The team from the Rural Health Academic Centre were concerned that decisions about research design and methodologies have tended to be informed by a western worldview, resulting in research that overlooks the nuances of Aboriginal language and culture.

It is hoped that establishment of this Committee will give the Aboriginal community a stronger voice in the research process and facilitate inclusion of an Aboriginal worldview into research design, data collection, analysis, writing and publication of findings.

The project team envisage that by giving the Aboriginal community opportunity for greater influence over the research agenda and educating researchers about important local knowledge existing within the community, the experiences of the local Aboriginal community will be increasingly reflected in research output and the policy it subsequently feeds into.

‘CrookMoo: Simulating the clinical examination of cattle’
Presented by Associate Professor Peter Mansell

Pick your bovine patient and choose your own adventure! Gamification strategies were in abundance as Associate Professor Peter Mansell introduced us to ‘CrookMoo’: the computer simulation for teaching students the theoretical and methodological knowledge for examining sick cattle.

For cattle veterinarians, skills for the clinical examination of cattle are essential. But for students equipped with limited experience in handling these animals and now faced with a disgruntled patient liable to lash out, the process can be incredibly stressful.

CrookMoo comes to the rescue by providing a tool for practicing the theory of clinical examination (across a wide variety of cases and including uncommon or exotic disease) without requiring a real patient. Students select their case study and start the examination, instructing the program to take steps such as checking for heart rate, ordering blood samples to be taken (with real-world lag for results return), or taking the animal’s temperature. After the exam students enter their diagnosis into the system and receive feedback in the form of a case report.

With visions of this program being adapted for use with other species and human models (requiring no essential reprogramming), the next addition to CrookMoo might be a ™

‘Survey of approval processes for Human Research Ethics Committees’ at University of Melbourne affiliated hospitals’
Presented by Professor David Story

The work of this research group has grown out of current trends towards conducting multi-institutional studies and large clinical trials. Given the large collaborations underpinning such studies, ethics approval procedures and associated governance and administration systems have tended to cause researchers significant frustrations. One particular difficulty has been attributed to the apparent diversity in approaches taken by Human Research Ethics Committees (HRECs).

Whilst streamlining the internal processes for obtaining ethics approval amongst 14 hospitals affiliated with the Faculty of Medicine, Dentistry, and Health Sciences may read like an auditor’s nightmare, Professor Story and his research group have bravely taken on the challenge.

At present the group has developed a number of hypothetical research scenarios of increasing complexity which they intend to present to HREC Chairs and hospital administrators in the form of a survey. In asking for responses to these scenarios, the research group anticipate that they will discover certain similarities and differences in how HRECs respond to research proposals. This will also allow the research group to gauge the relative strengths and weaknesses of the approaches taken.

Whilst the grant for funding has been awarded and scenarios refined for use in the survey, the project is – ironically – stalled in the ethics approval phase. Undeterred, the research group nonetheless perseveres.

‘The ethics of intervening in the social lives of vulnerable older people’
Presented by Dr Jenny Waycott

When social interventions are directed towards an older population they have the potential to ease feelings of social isolation and bring considerable benefit. But what are the ethical issues associated with intervening in the social lives of older people, and how should a social intervention model account for these?

This study grew from a project undertaken by the research group where they provided iPads to older citizens, introducing them to technology that would facilitate their social interaction. Noting the ethical issues that arose from their own project, the group sought to interview aged care professionals with similar experience introducing social intervention activities.

Ethical issues explored by the research group included:

  • Ensuring that there is an equal opportunity for individuals to participate (noting issues of gender, language and cultural diversity);
  • Safeguarding participants’ right to withdraw from the intervention project;
  • Ensuring that anticipated social benefits are realised for participants – potentially requiring that researchers provide extensive support throughout the intervention or managing requests by family members that a participant be withdrawn from the project;
  • Ensuring that individuals employed to run the social intervention program have the appropriate skills, attitude and experience to respectfully interact with older adult participants.

With a publication currently under review, an exciting potential to contribute to current debate about ethical approaches to conducting social interventions with this population is now being realised.

‘Ethical methodologies and protocols for researching with children under the age of 5 years’
Presented by Ms Margaret Coady with Dr Kylie Smith

Though research with children is not a particularly new phenomenon, there exists a noticeable gap in the literature on the more specific topic of appropriate methodologies and protocols for conducting research with children under the age of 5.

This is where the research team from the Youth Research Centre of the Melbourne Graduate School of Education come into the picture. In the context of a growing recognition that children should be viewed as social actors capable of contributing to research and the rise of participatory research models, this research team has developed and administered the first phase of a survey to researchers working with this population.

Preliminary findings recognise the unequal power dynamics inherent to research with this population; stress the importance of seeking continuing assent of the child throughout the research project; and suggest an important role may be played by having present an individual not involved in the research project to protect the child’s interests.

The next phase of the study will seek to identify differences in the harm/benefit discussion as between disciplines and further explore tensions between protecting young children and allowing them to participate in research. All of this will ultimately address the possibility of a new orthodoxy developing in how research with children should be conducted.

‘Ethical considerations for Bionic Eyes’
Presented by Dr Kate Fox

Taking a step back from the excitement that tends to surround new technology such as the Bionic Ear and now the Bionic Eye, Dr Fox and her team have explored critical ethical thinking about the use of such technology and this topical subject area more generally.

By debunking some of the popular myths about current capacity of the Bionic Eye and the positive outcomes it has produced, the research team has sought to refocus discussion on common ethical issues overlooked in both the scientific literature and popular media.

Ethical issues explored by the research group include:

  • The need to manage expectations (particularly when working with a vulnerable population seeking a miraculous cure through a technology with no proven long-term effectiveness);
  • What this means for thinking about ‘disability’;
  • The cost of the technology and the risk that it will become a ‘rich [man’s]’ device; and
  • The potential for the technology to be misappropriated and used for purposes not originally intended.

With clinical trials on the horizon and the possibility of future expansion and refinement of this technology, the voice of ethical reasonableness will continue to play an important role in these discussions for a long time yet.

At OREI we are incredibly proud and impressed with the quality work being undertaken by our researchers. The projects presented embody the spirit of the EIDG scheme and we look forward to learning more about the progress and impact of their work.

And so following a satisfying day of Showcasing – the date of which passed no Breaking Bad fan by as being a special anniversary – OREI leaves you with this:

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Kim Gilliland