How not to cross the line

The California State University, Monterey Bay (CSUMB) Undergraduate Research Opportunities Center hosted an in-depth presentation which gave insights into the ethics of research and practice. Hosted by Dr. Renee Penalver, this event examined the reasons why it is necessary to maintain a strong ethical commitment when conducting research, especially when dealing with vulnerable human test subjects or animal subjects. 

Penalver is a California State University, Bakersfield alumna. She works in the department of psychology and is a new assistant professor at CSUMB. Her authority on ethical researching stems all the way from her undergrad research. She has worked with several populations, including older adults, people living with dementia and rats. 

During the presentation, Penalver asked for participation from the audience, which provided an array of perspectives on what the terms “ethics” and “research” mean. In this way, Penalver was engaging with the audience and the presentation became more of a group discussion as opposed to a lecture. 

As someone who has worked with people who have dementia, Penalver is familiar with the ethical dilemma. 

“Thinking about doing research with those impacted by dementia, it’s (usually) challenging, or there’s an ethical dilemma there, in thinking about whether the people impacted by dementia can give what we call informed consent,” Penalver said.

Research is necessary to discover facts about managing dementia, but it is necessary to consider the ethical implications the research may have on subjects. She discussed utilitarianism, and mentioned that the classic ethical dilemma always boils down to one question: “What is right for the majority? This seems right because it helps us to consider the implications for everyone involved.” 

Penalver presented historical context for why having a code of ethics is necessary for research. She discussed several instances where science exploited vulnerable people. This includes the Nazi experiments conducted on prisoners against their consent, with no anesthesia. As a result of the Nazi experiments, the Nuremberg Code of Ethics was created to ensure that people engaging with scientific and medical research are preserving the integrity and humanity of their subjects. This code has a list of 10 principles, including voluntary consent, a scientific basis and justification for conducting the experiment and that experiments resulting in pain or death should be avoided at all costs. 

Also discussed was the Tuskegee Experiment, where subjects were deceived, exploited and were not given a debriefing after the study was concluded, resulting in death and suffering of Black men. Penalver discussed the deeply held belief part of the medical community had in the past that Black people have a higher pain threshold. This has proved to be a deadly issue that results in suffering and catastrophic mortality rates for Black people, especially where it pertains to Black maternal and infant mortality rates.

Every field of study has its own way of conducting research. “Research looks different from field to field, and each field adopts their own ethical guidelines or standards in terms of being able to work with whoever they’re working with,” Penalver said. 

There is not always a clear answer – ethical decisions are not always clear cut and there is a lot of grey area within creating ethical research procedures. That being said, it is a practice in which the researcher needs to determine possible ethical violations and discomfort that might be experienced by the subjects. “We have to think about these things when we’re doing research,” Penalver said. 

There are several other guidelines dedicated to preserving the wellbeing of research subjects. The American Psychological Association Code is a list of principles intended to maintain people’s rights and dignities. The Institutional Review Board (IRB), as well as the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committees (IACUC), are agencies that must approve research that involves humans and non-human animals. Research involving animals and humans must follow legal and ethical standards and be approved by these agencies. 

For IRB approval, the research in question must follow the criteria for protecting the rights of the people involved. This includes participant consent that is free from coercion. With IACUC, the requirements are that the potential research benefits must outweigh the risks to animals. Penalver also mentioned that if the study is asking people invasive questions that may trigger any underlying issues, researchers should provide resources to allow the participants to seek help should they need to.

Overall, this discussion was an accessible introduction to the parameters of ethical research and practice. Penalver offered a comprehensive presentation and many attendees were present to hear her analyses. For more information about UROC events, readers can visit csumb.edu/uroc. 

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