Ever wondered about what research ethics are, and why the term sometimes has a bad rep? Sarah Bennett recalled that “for a long time, research ethics were reactionary and fearful.” While it seems that conversations about the topic could be daunting and stilted, she’s helping to make it less so, assisted by several key individuals across Canada, and the fact that ethical review is a required part of the research cycle nationally.
As a self-professed relationship builder and network creator, Sarah (photo above, left) brings long-time expertise in research ethics to the BC AHSN organization. She’s been involved in the research ethics field for twelve years, and getting involved with Research Ethics BC (REBC), a unit within BC AHSN, has demonstrated to her the importance of building and developing relationships across the research landscape.
“..Research ethics have become a dynamic, and action-oriented part of the research continuum.”
“I’ve worked at UBC, Fraser Health, SFU, and Island Health in the research ethics capacity,” she noted in an interview. “I’ve been involved in several educational opportunities at a leadership level to enable research ethics colleagues, both within BC and further afield, pursuing opportunities to network, learn, and reflect on current topics in research ethics.”
Ten years of Sarah’s 12-year experience in the field has been devoted to harmonizing ethics reviews for BC researchers who are in the beginning stages of studies involving living participants.
Obtaining full ethics reviews and approvals before proceeding in a health research study was previously a clunky process in British Columbia. Before harmonization, research teams were obligated to apply to research ethics boards at each educational institution separately to gain approval to proceed – a time-consuming and repetitive process.
Beginning with the BC Ethics Harmonization Initiative (BC EHI), a predecessor of REBC, the process began to change substantially, by eradicating the bureaucracy involved previously. With the folding of BC EHI’s work into the then-newly-formed BC AHSN, REBC had the funding and resources to approach more and more institutions to ensure that the ethics approval for researchers could be obtained through one online platform, and not by filing multiple forms at many offices.
“I believe REBC has the potential to change the landscape of research ethics in BC and nationally.”
REBC now supports a province-wide, harmonized system – a ‘one-stop shop,’ so to speak – for research ethics reviews of studies conducted in multiple geographic areas involving the resources, people, patients or data from more than one BC research institution. New partners continue to be added to the system, further making the approval process even more streamlined for researchers, and allowing their studies to have a larger geographic scope.
“With work from several amazing people across this country, and here in BC, research ethics has become a dynamic, and action-oriented part of the research continuum,” Sarah noted. “REBC is changing this discussion even more by opening up communication channels across siloed groups – institutions, offices, research ethics boards [REBs], and communities. Within REBC there is a recognition that ethics is not above or separate to the research endeavour, but beats at the heart of it.”
Despite this substantial achievement, Sarah believes that there’s still more work to be done. The BC AHSN unit can continue to change the research landscape further – and not just in British Columbia.
The idea of “ethics first” as an essential component of research could be a key driver of change that BC AHSN seeks to make.
“I believe REBC has the potential to change the landscape of research ethics in BC and nationally,” she said. “This can be done through a focus on participant-centred research ethics that values relationships across institutions and communities. Ethics is a conversation and REBC can hold those with a wide variety of stakeholders to facilitate meaningful, engaged, and applicable dialogue directed toward improving the experience of participants in research.”
Back within BC, the idea of “ethics first” as an essential component of research could be a key driver of change that BC AHSN seeks to make towards establishing a robust learning health system.
“I truly believe that research ethics, and REBC, can help our provincial research initiatives grow with this foundational approach of ‘ethics first,’” Sarah concluded. “From there, BC can lead these complex areas of research because the place they came from has ethics innately applied. Working together, we can address some of the challenges facing us.”
For more information about Research Ethics BC, please visit their website.