The ethics review under the magnifying glass

Eureka offered to be a case study in the PRO-Ethics project because of its expertise in managing and handling the “ethics review” for its major funding programme: Eurostars. The ethics review is a unique tool ensuring that project proposals funded under the Eurostars programme are compliant with main ethical principles and international/EU and national legislation. In the context of PRO-Ethics, the ethics review plays an important role, as it offers a special focus on the ethical participation of research participants (adults, children, vulnerable populations, patients, etc.) in funded research projects, states Davide Delaiti, process leader for ethics in Eureka.

Eureka started its work a few months ago, collecting Eurostars participants’ and ethics experts’ opinions using surveys, and then analysing the relevant information and data in our database. Eureka’s final step was to host a workshop that was hosted online on the 16th of September 2020 and served as a last discussion platform to share ideas on the ethics review in Eurostars. The workshop was a great opportunity to gather stakeholders that play an important role in the Eurostars programme who rarely have the chance to meet and discuss face-to-face at the same table.

We selected a heterogeneous group of stakeholders composed of two national project coordinators, four Eurostars participants (three SMEs and one University), two ethics experts and two Eureka officers. The audience was divided in two groups assigned to two different breakout rooms to discuss two topics.

Ethics compliance and scientific quality of project proposals

In this session it was discussed if and how the ethics compliance affects the scientific quality of a project proposal. Being compliant with ethics principles and EU and national legislation in several domains like the treatment of personal data or the recruitment of patients may influence the final outcome of a research project. Researchers are sometimes obliged to change part of their project acivities in order to ethics compliant.

One of the main reccomendations formulated was that the protection of the individuals and of the researchers must be the priority even if affecting the final outcome of the research. A concrete example was brought into the discussion, regarding the investigation of peoples’ behaviour in crisis situation and faced with terrorism:

“One experiment was to see how people react in a crowd situation. Somebody would behave like a suicide bomber. This would have been of tremendous value at scientific level, but a totally unacceptable project. You have to pre-inform participants. It was needed to change the project. The priority is protecting. The scientists are not always happy, but it is in their best interests.”

Ethics review: where’s the added value?

A second session debated where and if the ethics review brings any added value to the evaluation process of the Eurostars programme. The audience was invited to comment on some statements collected thorugh the surveys.

Overall, Eureka collected positive feedbacks on the utility of the ethics review as the audience agreed on the fact that the ethics review is an important tool to orient research participants not only in terms of ethics issues to face, but also in terms of regulations and laws to comply with. Furthermore, decisionmakers are more confident in putting money into a programme, like Eurostars, that integrates the ethics review in its evaluation procedures. This creates trustworthiness not just towards the national participants, but also in the research project itself.

A common European approach for the ethics review in R&D&I funding schemes

The last part of the workshop was dedicated to a plenary discussion regarding the possibility and opportunity to adopt a common European approach for the ethics review in research and innovation funding programmes. The participants were somewhat sceptical:

“Europe is not ready. At the moment to try to adopt a Europe-wide approach to ethics would be unacceptable to many countries.”

By Davide Delaiti
Photo: ©2018 Eureka Association AISBL

Published 08.10.2020