Research is the basis for the advancement of many different scientific disciplines, and very often, this research requires carefully constructed experiments. The ethics that govern research and experiments with human participants have changed dramatically over the past century. For example, one of the most famous psychological experiments was done by John Watson in 1920. The experiment involved a 8 month old child known only as Little Albert. Watson tested his theories that humans are a blank slate at birth and all knowledge we aquire is learned through experience and anything can be taught. In his research, Watson taught Little Albert to fear a variety of soft white animals or similar objects which the child had previously face with no aversion. He did this by pairing exposure to one of the animals, such as a rat or bunny, with a loud, scary noise. Well, his theory worked, he effectively taught Little Albert to fear many white fuzzy objects or animals.
At the time, there was no ethical contradictions to a study such as this. Would we allow it now? No way! The vast majority of current research is done in cooperation with universities. When a research study is proposed, it has to be submitted to an Institutional Review Board (IRB). The IRB scours the plans to determine that all activities are conducted with high ethical standards. All human participants are required to be informed of, and give consent to all activities which may take place, and have the complete, consequence-free freedom to quit and walk away at any time. (Any studies involving animal participants are submitted to a different review board which ensures that the treatment of the animals is absolutely necessary in the pursuit of beneficial scientific goals.)
Does research take place without being approved by an IRB? Most likely. This doesn’t necessarily mean it violates common ethics, but because this research isn’t tracked, there is just no way to know. Until 2008, the VA didn’t have an IRB, but this young VA IRB has come a long way in the past few years.
Why are we writing about IRBs? There is a non-profit organization that judges IRBs to make sure they are doing the job properly. Oversight for the oversight. An organization that does an exceptionally good job of maintaining participant protecting standards and practices can win an award from this non-profit. The Association for the Accreditation of Human Research Protection Programs (AAHRPP) recently gave this award to the VA. Having met these standards, the VA is on a good track for trustworthy research.
What does this mean for veterans? They can feel more assured, because someone outside of the VA has determined that in its policies and practices, no unethical procedures, influential methods, or anything else, will take place. It is the assurance that the research is for what it says it is for, and that the only things happening will be what you sign informed consent for.
Research is the only way to advance our knowledge, but without participants, there won’t be any research.
Original VA Press Release announcing this accreditation award here.
Photo thanks to Novartis AG under creative commons license on Flickr.