We all know when we teach research ethics, that we are teaching a very simple thing – do no harm.
Whatever approach to ethics you take, whether you are focused on legal procedures or relationship building, collaborative research or traditional social science it all comes down to this point – do not leave those who participate in research worse off as a result of their involvement in the research.
The government’s Overseas Development Aid cuts, which have led to a huge cut in the UK’s Global Challenges Research Fund make a mockery of this. Mid-way through projects with partners in low and middle income countries, after years of relationship and trust building, taking partners’ time away from other activities that they can only barely afford to neglect, the funding is being cut, with no warning, no safety net and no time to adjust.
Thousands of small fragile organisations have invested in staff and activities on the expectation that the universities they are working with will honour their promises of research partnership. Individuals in low income countries have made decisions about what to work on, what jobs to take and even where to live, on the assumption that the commitments made to them will be fulfilled. Time and effort will have been wasted, organisations diminished and depleted, and this in some of the poorest countries and most vulnerable communities on earth.
The UK’s academic community has made it clear that the effect of these cuts is manifold: they will harm communities, individuals, efforts to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, the UK’s international reputation and the reputation of Universities.
What has not been made clear however, is that these cuts mid way through grants undermine the fundamental ethical basis for all research. If individuals are required to take responsibility for their actions as researchers, but the institutions that they are part of (universities, UKRI, the UK Government) are not, there can be no such thing as ethical research. The government’s actions must be recognised as the threat that they are to the ethical foundations of UK research.
Equally, that UK Research and Innovation (the body that administers research funding in the UK) should both agree these cuts to low and middle income country research (rather than exploring other options across its whole portfolio) and announce them without critical commentary, without recogition of the impact of this decision on the ethical foundations of research in the UK and in a letter that simply repeats the government’s line about its proposed future investments in this area, raises serious questions about who is upholding ethical standards for the UK’s research community.
We will all now have a new case study in our research ethics teaching – what is the point of individualised ethical responsibility when the government actively undermines it? And why should anyone ever trust UK universities as research partners again?