Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Research Ethics: a Brief History

I'm so, so sorry about this.
Giving appropriate and thorough consideration to the ethical implications of your research is now an essential part of the process of developing projects and applying for grants.

However, how did we get here? How did we arrive at this comprehensive framework of scrutiny? The Research Ethics and Governance Officer at Kent, Nicole Palmer, has been working in the area for almost a decade now, and offered up this broad overview of key points in the progress to the present. It's not comprehensive, but does provide an indication of both the historic moments since the war that triggered action, and the legislation, policy and guidelines that have resulted.

For more detail of a range of professional ethics codes, have a look at this list compiled by the Research Ethics Handbook. For staff at the University of Kent who wish to talk through their research and the issues involved, drop Nicole a line.


  • 1948: Nuremberg Code developed as a result of the Nuremberg Trials against German physicians’ and administrators’ participation in experiments on concentration camp prisoners during WW2
  • 1950s: Thalidomide released for over-the-counter sale without going through appropriate animal trials
  • 1932-1972: Tuskeegee Syphilis Experiment recruited African American participants without proper informed consent.  Effective treatment for syphilis, which was not available at the start of the trial but which was discovered during its operation, was withheld from participants in order that progression of the disease without treatment could be studied
  • 1964: Declaration of Helsinki published by WMA
  • 1971: Stanford Prison Experiment
  • 1980s & 1990s: Alder Hey and retention of organs without consent
  • 1991: Local Research Ethics Committees established in NHS
  • 1998: Data Protection Act
  • A quarter of universities have established RECs before 1990, but nearly half have been set up since 2000 (Tinker & Coomber 2004)
  • 2000: establishment of Central Office for Research EthicsCommittees (NHS) and national uniformity of NHS research ethics review
  • 2001: DH Governance Arrangements for NHS Research Ethics Committees
  • 2001/2005: DH Research Governance Framework for Health & Social Care
  • 2004: Human Tissue Act
  • Early 2000s: funders (e.g. Nuffield; Wellcome Trust) begin to make it a condition of grants that ethical approval has been obtained
  • 2006: ESRC Framework for Research Ethics
  • 2009: RCUK Policy and Guidelines on the Governance of Good Research Conduct
  • 2009: UK Research Integrity Office Code of Practice for Research
  • 2012: Universities UK Concordat to Support Research Integrity

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