How to achieve the highest ethical standards in scientific research
A South African university has adopted a global code developed by an EU initiative to prevent the export of unethical research practices to low- and middle-income countries.
With global collaboration in research becoming more common, the issue of ethics dumping has gained prominence in recent years. History is full of examples of cases of exploitation in research, from the horrendous Nazi experiments to the Tuskegee trials in the United States.
The phenomenon of ethics dumping broadly refers to the exportation of ethically unacceptable and non-compliant research practices to poor countries. These involve carrying out research without ethical approval or insurance for harm that may occur during a study. These include conducting tests that exploit vulnerable populations or undertaking research in a low- and middle-income country that would normally be prohibited in a high-income one with stringent regulations. Thanks to the EU-funded TRUST project, the University of Cape Town (UCT) Senate has adopted a set of principles and procedures to be followed in addressing the unevenness in ethical and legal research standards.
A news item on the UCT website notes that “the Global Code of Conduct for Research in Resource-Poor Settings (GCC)” covers all research disciplines. “This makes UCT the third adopter of the Global Code, after the European Commission and the European & Developing Countries Clinical Trials Partnership, and the first adopter in the global south.”
Wilful or unintentional?
As the same news item explains, the practice of ethics dumping could be either intentional or unintentional, for example, when there’s insufficient expertise. It adds: “The GCC therefore also serves as an educational tool for researchers and research support systems.”
The TRUST (Creating and enhancing TRUSTworthy, responsible and equitable partnerships in international research) project was set up to prevent ethics dumping by improving the implementation of high ethical standards in research around the world. The project, which ended in 2018, utilised a new framework based on the values of fairness, respect, care and honesty. Its first affiliated code was the San Code of Research Ethics that was launched in Cape Town in 2017. A note on the Global Code of Conduct for Research in Resource-Poor Settings website states: “Never before had a code been developed by indigenous peoples in Africa to protect themselves from exploitation in research.”
The San peoples of southern Africa, known to contain the oldest human DNA on Earth, are much sought after for population‐wide genomic research. A document on the project website covers various case studies, including the genome sequencing project that involved four selected San individuals. The findings of the genome study were published in the journal ‘Nature’ in 2010. The research was perceived as being disrespectful by the San leadership and various workshops were held regarding the issue in 2014 and 2016. These comprised San leaders from Botswana, Namibia and South Africa, as well as genomic researchers, ethicists and lawyers. The workshops in 2016 were organised under the auspices of the TRUST project and led to recommendations and eventually the publication of the San Code of Research Ethics.
Other examples of case studies analysed in the document include the use of non‐human primates in research, sex workers involved in HIV/AIDS research, Ebola vaccine trials, and ICT and mobile data for health research. In addition to the creation of an international network on global research ethics governance, TRUST developed a toolkit to provide guidance for consideration when negotiating for fair outcomes in research partnerships.