Ethics and research councils
What is the relationship between sponsors of research and its ethical conduct? The research councils that distribute funding now play a key role in ensuring that research is subject to ethics review and that ethical standards are maintained. In this section we consider the relationship between the sponsors of research and its ethical conduct.
One of the ways in which anticipatory ethics review in the social sciences has become more visible to researchers is its inclusion in the governance requirements of the sponsors and funders of research. In the UK, the Economic and Social Research Council introduced its Ethics Framework in 2005 which was later updated as the Framework for Research Ethics in 2015. The document begins with a high-level statement:
The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), in facilitating innovative and high quality research, expects that the research we support will be carried out to a high ethical standard. By establishing the Framework for Research Ethics (FRE) we confirm our commitment to a process of regular review through consultation with the research community and stakeholders, to ensure ethical standards reflect changing scientific agendas and policy developments
ESRC Framework for Research Ethics, 2015
Compliance with the Framework for Research Ethics’ (FRE) requirements is made more likely given that ethical approval is now part of the grant allocation approval process. Funds will not be released unless appropriate ethics review has been undertaken. This requirement places both researchers and the research organisations within which they operate, under considerable pressure to ensure that review mechanisms are in place and they are made proper use of. In a move which echoed earlier developments in the US, British universities found themselves replicating REC oversight of research across a wide range of disciplines. As Dingwall (2008) and Hedgecoe (2008) have argued, in this role there is a tendency for universities to off load governance issues onto ethics review procedures in the interest of reputation and risk management. The establishment of the FRE also placed the ESRC in a more salient position as the general manager and overseer of UK social science research (Savage, Bradley, & Smith, 2011).
To support its research governance requirements the ESRC has put considerable effort into providing its own support and guidance. The material available of the ESRC’s website is now extensive. The centrepiece of these efforts is the FRE guidelines which has grown into a comprehensive document which covers the range of disciplines that are funded by the ESRC. It is a helpful document but one that sometimes reads as if it is written for a researcher operating somewhere in between psychology and medicine. For this reason, it can be a little alarming when a project with ethnographic intentions is considered alongside it. However, it is important to remember that the ESRC are also open to disciplinary variation and moreover, keen to preserve it. Ethnographic approaches are very much part of this variation:
Research paradigms differ between disciplines and a ‘one size fits all’ approach is not always appropriate. Application forms and procedures should be kept as brief as possible and could be tailored to the requirements of particular disciplines.
ESRC Framework for Research Ethics, 2015,14
The establishment of the FRE in relation to research has been further consolidated by its linkage to QAA requirements in the form of benchmarking statements which encompass the training of doctoral students.
Dingwall, Robert (2008) The ethical case against ethical regulation in humanities and social science research. 21st Century Society, 3 (1), pp. 1-12.
ESRC (Economic and Social Research Council) (2015) ESRC Framework for Research Ethics, Accessed 07/07/18, retrieved from: https://esrc.ukri.org/files/funding/guidance-for-applicants/esrc-framework-for-research-ethics-2015/
Hedgecoe, A. M. (2008). Research ethics review and the sociological research relationship. Sociology 42(5), pp. 873-886.
Savage, M., Bradley, H. and Smith, D. (2011) Symposium on the ESRC, BSA, and HAPS international benchmarking review of UK sociology. The Sociological Review, 59(1), pp.149-164.