Thursday, December 18, 2008

Seeking Ethics Review of Ethics Review

Our campus desperately needs to review the current approach to ethics review. Please let faculty researchers who are forced to comply with this often unnecessary bottleneck scrutinize the purpose of these social and biomedical ethics review boards. Perhaps if we use our impressive research and evaluation skills, we can gain some insight into secretive ethics review boards and institute some form of accountability and control.

Currently, faculty and graduate student researchers in the social sciences, who conduct human subjects research that is no or very low risk, are overly delayed and overly scrutinized by an opaque ethics review board. Anonymous reviewers get to criticize research protocols well beyond their own area of expertise, and/or request whatever changes, deletions and additions that they dream up for the protocol under scrutiny -- even if these changes, deletions and additions make absolutely no sense and have no discernible impact on subject safety.

A graduate student of mine once had her research held up for 3 weeks because she refused to change a word in her title -- a reviewer objected to a term in her TITLE - eventually the ethics review board backed down from this "strong suggestion" when I sent a letter with three references citing the terminology as used in our discipline. Blind ethics reviewers, who wring their hands and dream up potential unforeseen risks and fantasy phantoms, do not help the research objective of the university nor do they keep human subjects safe.

I ask that ethics reviewers be named and known to the researchers being scrutinized -- let's level the playing field. Researchers need to know the credentials and background and qualifications of those who seek to fiddle with their research plans and protocols -- just as the reviewers know the credentials and name of the researcher. The reviewers should have to defend their requests for changes, and researchers should be given an opportunity to respond.

Currently, if a researcher disagrees with a "strong suggestion" from the REB, they have to argue their case to the ... REB. Researchers must appeal their case to the same board that denied their request. Big conflict of interest here. Researchers need an opportunity to engage in meaningful discourse with peer reviewers and the REB rather than their only option being to capitulate to unnecessary and often unreasonable demands.

One of the purposes of a University is RESEARCH. At my university, faculty and students have to submit ALL PROTOCOLS to an onerous, nit-picking and timely review process. Like many of my colleagues, and like many of our graduate students, I have become "encultured" in the new politically correct approach to vetting research proposals. Any kind of research about sex or religion or death or learning is automatically subjected to "zero tolerance" for ANY risk whatsoever -- even if the research will benefit the groups involved. Note, I do not believe the current ethics review process is methodologically or philosophically or ethically defensible. What I do believe is that our current ethics review process is nothing more than an intellectual exercise for some reviewers and chairs who seem to be drawn to questions about ethics in research and studying lint in navels.

I do believe that Ethics Review Boards are largely a legal, "protectus thy butticus" industry of the university -- ethics review often has less to do with protecting human subjects from any harm involved in the research itself, and more to do with "finding fault" and justifying the ethics review process and protecting the university from imaginary threats. The uni and ethics review boards want to protect their interests and shore themselves up against any legal threats -- the review process is the point, and gives the uni leave to abandon the researcher to his or her own defense -- after all, the uni did everything in its power to protect the human subjects from the researchers, right?

In early December, my research team submitted a research proposal for ethics review concurrently at my university and the sister institution up North (where members of the team work). In a few days, our team had approval from the sister university. That is, we had APPROVAL in a few days. Ethics APPROVAL with no revisions or changes of any kind. I repeat: "ethics approval with no changes" because it is such a foreign concept at my university. So far, all I have received from my campus Ethics Review Board is a series of nit-picking questions about this or that detail - totally unrelated to the research methods and questions and plans.

I expect to wait several weeks, perhaps 1 -2 months, to get approval for my low to no risk RESEARCH at my RESEARCH INTENSIVE university. Hah. Bah humbug.

At some future point, I will submit to the VP Research, at my Research Intensive University (RIU), a comparison between the ethics review and approval time at the sister university (a few days) and mine (probably several weeks or even months), and the process at the sister university (no changes), and mine (nitpicking, detailed changes and requests for more detail and requests for minute changes and revisions) for comparison and consideration. There may just be a reason why the sister university gets more research funding and conducts more research than my institution...

Let me connect the dots: a reasonable and quick ethical review & approval of research that conveys a commitment to the research objective, and conveys a trust of researchers at the sister institution; versus, a chilling, bureaucratic and overly scrutinized and numbingly arcane bottlenecked ethics revivew process at my university.

A few days versus a few weeks or months for ethical review: The defensive position I anticipate from the REB at my RIU is that "our" ethics review process is of "higher quality" - well, I want proof. I want proof of return on investment -- after all, the Ethics Industry is now a significant budget line item. I want proof that the Ethics Review Board has resulted in some benefit to the University, some benefit to researchers, and any benefit to research. In fact, I suggest we bring our social science research skills to bear on evaluating the processes for ethics review, and demonstrate whether this onerous and timely and nitpicking process has any impact whatsoever on human subject safety, and determine the very real impact on slowing down and limiting the type of research that gets conducted at my "research intensive" university.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Meaningful Change Versus Nickle and Dime

This week, academic and support staff had the first of many conversations to come about budget and vision for our Faculty. I hope that we can continue to have open and civil conversations about the many changes that are needed, and indeed may become possible(!), given the current economic situation. I am delighted that "all options" are on the table -- from trimming back on unnecessary expenses, to the bigger issues of staff and faculty workload and reworking programs, to the idea of exploring options for revenue creation and growth. I believe in judicious cost cutting along with sustainable revenue building in line with our primary objectives - world class research, excellent teaching in both teacher preparation and our graduate programs and collegial governance.

I appreciated the open call to civility -- in the past few months, I have become very discouraged by the "open season" declared on faculty and the permissive culture towards bullying faculty in certain divisions. I have been very discouraged by the hall-way back stabbing and open season declared on past leaders and recent volunteer leaders who are doing their very best for this faculty - curious thanks for taking on the difficult task of leadership in these trying times. I hope that future discourse can recognize and support our present and past leader's achievements and efforts and personal sacrifice, rather than the opposite.

I love this faculty and I believe it can have a powerful future. I have been here for 20 years, first as an undergraduate, then as a graduate student and now as a faculty member. I have invested my heart and mind in this Faculty, in my colleagues and especially in my students. I work with people who have the brightest minds and best hearts in education and I am thankful for this privilege. I also believe that as a whole, the members of this faculty can do better -- we can be better with and to each other as we chart uncertain territory in the coming days.

I believe that we need to continuously review, revise and renew programs in the Faculty of Education. I hope that this period of transitional instability will yield meaningful change - I see the current upheaval as an opportunity to examine what we do and to make difficult and needed changes - changes that we might not have had the appetite for if we weren't in such perilous economic times. I hope we take advantage of this opportunity for meaningful change rather than hanging on by our fingernails to stagnant and entrenched programs that have become impervious to new ideas.

My Christmas List:

1. I sincerely hope that members of our faculty can put aside individualistic and selfish concerns, and work together on great solutions that benefit the entire faculty.
2. I hope that the faculty and support staff can continue to have open and civil conversations about the many changes that are needed, and indeed may finally become possible(!), given the current economic situation.
3. I hope that fresh ideas and innovative solutions will be welcomed, and that members of this faculty will (re)engage and be heard.
4. I hope that the benefits and burdens of any changes are shared by all faculty and support staff. Plums should not be hoarded by the few, nor should the sticks be imposed upon the more vulnerable members of our community.

A graduate student and I were chatting about the concept of mutual vulnerability yesterday. When complex systems begin to fail, the reverberating effects are felt by everyone. I do not believe we will get where we want to go in this Faculty unless everyone picks up an oar. Now is the time to figure out how we can get and keep everyone on board. Let's utilize all of our diverse and particular talents to build a common vision and hammer out an ethical and effective plan for action.

Friday, December 5, 2008

100 Years to a Balanced Budget

Similar to other industries, the current economic crisis is hitting campus hard.

A large gap between revenue and expenses means that our faculty is going to have to consider ways to (i) increase revenue (which gives the Marxists a rash), (ii) increase workload, (which gives overworked and already time-poor faculty a rash), or (iii) reduce expenses, which can mean lost jobs given that over 85% of the budget is salaries. In other words, our faculty needs to look for "efficiencies".

At first I believed that our faculty could use our vision for academic programs, research and collegial governance as a lens through which to make these hard decisions about finance. But, no, wait!! One of our fearless leaders found another option!! Let's cut back on office supplies!!!

Yesterday, it was discouraging, if not downright insulting, to learn that one of our leaders has decided that knee-jerk reaction is the way to go rather than transparency and communication. After a budget meeting, faculty were confronted by a locked paper cupboard and demeaning signage about negotiating the key from support staff. That's right -- in our faculty, not only is there "no free lunch", there is no "free paper" for faculty member's office printers. Ho ho ho. The timing and optics on this are just as bad as the opposition leader filming his address to the nation using a cell phone.

"No free paper" - just in time for end of semester assessments and paperwork.
"No free paper" - means, instead of catching up on workload over the weekend, forget it because the photocopier is empty and no support staff are around

Now, I am no accountant, but a quick calculation of this "No free paper" policy, indicates that it will only take us about 100 years to make up this year's budget shortfall. That's right!! Multiply the cost of paper at $25 / case by 12 (1 case per month) by each of 90 faculty members, means we will save 3.6 million and completely reshape this faculty in the next century.

Whew!! Glad that big leadership issue is taken care of....