Workshops share best ethics practices around human research

A participant asks a panel of experts a question during the "Research Partners with Community Members" workshop, part of the U's inaugural Research Ethics Day.

A participant asks a panel of experts a question during the “Research Partners with Community Members” workshop, part of the U’s inaugural Research Ethics Day.

Across the U.S., researchers conducting studies that involve human participants must make decisions that advance scientific progress without sacrificing the welfare or freedom of their participants.

Earlier this month, University of Minnesota researchers came together with experts from across the nation to explore a range of ethics questions related to adults, adolescents and children participating in research. For example, past studies have found some research participants do not fully understand that they are signing up for research instead of routine clinical care.

Through a series of workshops and training sessions hosted by the U’s Human Research Protection Program with support from the Office of the Vice President for Research, attendees learned practical skills to help them navigate issues of informed consent while ensuring a high level of ethical conduct.

The workshops and trainings were part of the U’s first Research Ethics Day, an annual event for learning about and discussing research ethics. In establishing a day to focus on these vital issues, the University joins a group of peer institutions with similar traditions, including Rutgers University, the University of Illinois and the University of Alberta.

Allen Levine, Ph.D., the U’s interim vice president for research, said focusing on ethics provides an opportunity to lay the groundwork for improvements in research practices.

“Obtaining informed consent is a crucial element of any study that involves human participants,” Levine said. “Issues around consent are inherently complicated and challenging. If we are building a strong culture of research ethics, we need opportunities for discussion and learning, and that’s what these workshops and training sessions provide.”

The workshops were part of two days of conferences, collectively called “Frontier Issues in Research Ethics,” that brought together leading researchers, policymakers, scientists, clinicians, bioethicists, and lawyers from across the nation. The event’s panel discussions explored major challenges facing informed consent, such as research involving vulnerable populations, the emergence of new technologies and the recent revisions to federal rules governing research with human participants.

A culture of research ethics

The conferences were the latest part of a University-wide effort to cultivate a culture of research ethics. This effort, which began in early 2015, centers on protecting human research participants, upholding the highest ethical standards and improving research oversight at every step of the process. Since then, the U has implemented more than 60 improvements to its human research protections.

Later this month, the U’s Ethical Oversight Submission System, or ETHOS, will go live. ETHOS, run by the Human Resources Protection Program, is a streamlined, online platform for submitting applications to the Institutional Review Board (IRB) for review and approval. The new platform will make it easier for IRB reviewers and staff to efficiently communicate with the more than 10,000 faculty, staff, and students involved in research with human participants.

Going forward, the University will continue to evaluate ETHOS and other new processes to ensure they help to maintain the highest standards around human research protections.

Photo: Brian Carnell