I was recently reminded of why I chose to remain within the academic milieu after undertaking both post-secondary and graduate studies. It has been some time since I had the opportunity to discuss with researchers, and specifically graduate student researchers, about research – research practices, the ethical and responsible conduct of research, and the roles of scientists and academics within society. For some, from where I sit, it would seem that such conversations were a part of my day-to-day – research ethics is my specialty. The truth is, I spend more time navigating regulatory and policy requirements for research than engaging in identifying, critiquing, and debating the applied and theoretical tenants of my field.
Research is an imperfect domain. It is inundated with policy and regulations, research practices are beset with increased concerns about misconduct, replicability, and peer review, and it often seems a wholly under-appreciated (or maybe misunderstood) endeavor in our contemporary society. Challenges also remain about how researchers should engage with communities and with society as a whole, how to engage and foster the roles of women in science, and the potential impact of research and its derivatives on life and well-being. To be certain, the role of research in society and in the advancement of knowledge and learning provide positive outcomes. We all benefit from vaccinations that prevent and eradicate diseases such as smallpox and polio, and from technologies that provide communities and households with clean, accessible, and affordable energy. Society also benefits when we are able to understand the impacts of past events on our present, and can appreciate the contributions that diverse Peoples and cultures have in the articulation of our histories and in our contemporary world. But the question remains: how will researchers respond to the challenges identified above? At what point in your career do you begin to think about the ethics and impact of your research? Are you ready and able to communicate with the general population about your research? Do you question your own practices? Do these questions matter to you?
I was both enlightened and privileged to learn that these issues are on the minds of McGill graduate students. In my role, I see research as a collaborative effort – a partnership in many ways. Researchers need the support of their peers, communities, and institutions, of society, of sponsors and funders. These partnerships often place accountability in the hands of the researcher for establishing relationships, in securing trust, and in maintaining integrity. Ethical practices and responsible conduct provide assurances that the work you do today and tomorrow will not intentionally harm or mislead your partners; it will also build credibility and confidence within your own investigations as well as within the broader research field.
I want to thank both Meaningful Science and Women in Science for reminding me of the reasons I chose to remain in an academic setting – the challenges are what drive my profession – and for partaking in discussions about the potential for reflection and change.
Sacha Young is a guest blogger for GradLife McGill. She is the Ethics Review Administrator for the McGill Institutional Review Board (Faculty of Medicine). In a past life she studied public policy and administration at Concordia University with a research interest in accountability under international law. Today she thinks about the role and importance of science communication, change in research ethics, and different ways of seeing and thinking.
Images by Sacha Young