Though many consider it to be a thing of the past, unethical and exploitative research persists in the 21st century. It is particularly worrying when this exploitation aligns with the old fault lines of colonialism. Researchers from high-income countries travel to resource-poor settings to undertake research that would not be allowed at home. The European commission calls this type of research “ethics dumping”.
Ethics dumping can take many forms. Sometimes it is wilful exploitation: researchers avoid local ethics approval, undertake highly unethical experiments on non-human primates or refuse requests for compensation for harm incurred during a research study. Sometimes it may result from a lack of knowledge, for instance when researchers are unaware that community leaders need to be contacted before undertaking their research. In other cases it is simply unacceptable, insensitive behaviour, such as entering indigenous people’s homes during fieldwork to take pictures of breastfeeding mothers.
Research funders are in a prime position to counter ethics dumping because they provide the conditions for funding. The commission has insisted since 2014 (the launch of Horizon 2020) that European ethics rules apply abroad. That’s a commendable measure, but it can only be a first step.
Regardless of how well developed these rules are, there will be situations where it will be tricky to apply them automatically. In several countries, homosexuality is illegal and punishable by the death penalty. In such settings, it is simply too dangerous to recruit people from these vulnerable communities into research projects, and applying European rules is often not enough to protect them. Other difficult cases could be studies that starve local hospitals of trained staff or lead to the illegal transportation of plants or other items across the border. In such situations, local stakeholders would understand the complexity of these cases far better than the researchers.
We need long-term, mutually beneficial research relationships to master the complex ethical decisions in international research. These cannot be made by European researchers alone.
The commission is seeking to remedy this by making a new code of conduct for research in “resource-poor settings” a condition for all new research funding applications. The code, which prioritises equitable partnerships, has been drafted by an international consortium, the majority of whom are research leaders from middle-income countries, as well as women.
A new, accessible standard for ethical research can help academics make decisions based on the core principles of fairness, honesty, respect and care. This is what we need for global research collaboration to truly flourish.
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