Thursday, June 21, 2012

Student research and ethics in Africa: a joke?

BMC Medical Ethics has recently published an empirical study on research ethics among student scientists in Africa entitled: Are students kidding with health research ethics? The case of HIV/AIDS research in Africa. The authors, in the majority Cameroonian, come up with some disheartening but not all that unsurprising data -- indicating that few student research theses for HIV/AIDS related studies involving human participants obtain ethics approval, only a minority obtain informed consent, and when consent is obtained, elements of the process seem to be downplayed or are missing. The period covered is from 1986 to 2010, i.e. the entire time of the HIV/AIDS epidemic until nearly the present day. While the authors note that there has been a recent increase in student research ethics compliance, it is clear that the ethical awareness of students conducting research in Cameroon has been very, very thin. Did it lead to terrible consequences? It is hard to know. In any case, the situation (as the authors note) does not cohere with ideals of what a thoughtful scientist, conducting research on vulnerable populations, ought to be like. I have the feeling that the situation goes far beyond Cameroon in Africa. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, Madagascar and Zambia, institutions of higher education are being pressured to build their research and development capacity, as they are increasingly viewed as important economic drivers. Students are accordingly being required to conduct research, however small-scale, to support their theses and dissertations. What is not keeping pace with this development is corresponding education in regard to research ethics. Students are likely to conduct insensitive or harmful research, to a lesser or greater extent, unless they are carefully mentored by experienced and competent peers. In many African institutions, such mentoring is impractical. What is more practical, but generally neglected, is to insert research ethics courses widely into relevant educational settings in Africa. If that does not happen, and a student's research goes ethically rogue, the joke might be on them.