Research ethics — a responsibility of the University and individuals alike

ResearchEthics_InquiryBlog version2

The University of Minnesota is a research university dedicated to the advancement of knowledge. Our research enterprise is premised on the idea that our faculty, staff and students will pursue the truth and allow the data to speak for itself. It also relies on researchers conducting their work in ways that respect the rights and interests of people participating in their studies, as well as the community in which those people live.

As I indicated in a note to researchers this month, faculty, staff and others have made an immense effort to strengthen human research protections across the University. There is a great deal of that work in motion right now, and, as part of those efforts, we are launching a University-wide research ethics campaign, one that includes posters, digital communications, events and other activities to promote and build awareness of the University’s principles, policies and processes that support and require ethical research practices.

The campaign has been developed with the input from University of Minnesota researchers, staff and bioethicists. While it is important that University leaders such as the Regents, President Kaler, Senior Vice President Brooks Jackson and myself have embraced a set of core commitments and have recognized our collective responsibility to uphold the highest ethical standards, the creation of a more cohesive and self-reflective culture of ethics will ultimately fall to individuals on-the-ground within our research enterprise.

Starting in the coming academic year, the University will provide an opportunity to discuss research ethics at an annual research ethics symposium. The Office of the Vice President for Research is sponsoring the first Annual Research Ethics Day to take place next spring. The Consortium on Law and Values in Health, Environment & the Life Sciences is currently planning a morning session on that day on the challenges of informed consent. In the afternoon, a series of trainings and workshops in individual units coordinated by OVPR will provide learning opportunities on practical applications and best practices in a range of related topics.

But research teams need not wait until next spring to begin discussions about ethics — such discussions should be ongoing. We are looking to the research community to begin conversations within labs, units, departments and divisions about the ethics of research. I encourage you to take a hard look at what you and your team are doing in relation to human participants in research and to begin to discuss your work and processes in light of the core commitments. What is going well? What could be going better or might require help, resources or consultation?

While the University embraces and upholds the many policies, processes and federal regulations in place to protect human participants in research, these rules are not the whole picture.

As Susan Wolf of the Consortium points out, policies are words; making those words a reality and creating a strong culture of ethics often requires a shift in attitudes, sensitivities and actions. I know that research at the University of Minnesota involving human participants is, by and large, conducted in an ethical manner, but we can always do better. I invite you to start and embrace a searching and ongoing dialogue around research ethics.

VP for Research Brian Herman

Dr. Brian Herman is vice president for research at the University of Minnesota. He is responsible for the oversight and administration of an externally funded research program of more than $800 million, which encompasses all five campuses in the U of M system.