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New ‘public conversation’ looks at ethics review for health and social care research

New ‘public conversation’ looks at ethics review for health and social care research

13th June 2022

The Health Research Authority, working with partners in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, is today launching a ‘public conversation’ about how research ethics review could be changed to make it better for researchers, ethics committee members and people taking part in research

Learning from reviewing research during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Authority is seeking reactions to its ideas for making ethics review more innovative and efficient, whilst retaining public trust.

The consultation is part of Think Ethics, which was launched to the researcher community in September 2021 and has already taken steps to improve research and how it is reviewed:

  • retaining ‘virtual’ Research Ethics Committees meetings used during the pandemic
  • attracting a more diverse group of people to become committee members and enabling research teams to work more closely with committees to make their research more ethical
  • developing a new policy to require research teams to involve patients and the public in developing information for study participants. This forms part of a new policy we will be introducing to make sure that information for study participants is accessible and understandable
  • taking the public temperature about ethical research, working with members of the public to find out what they value most and feel they need to maintain trust in ethics review

An online survey – which will run alongside a series of workshops – will explore three potential changes to the ways in which ethics review is carried out.

These are to:

  • introduce a tool to support researchers to think ethically before they submit their study for review
  • make more use of expert Research Ethics Service staff in reviewing lower risk research, freeing up time for committees to focus on more complex research
  • delegate ethics review for studies within a programme of research to research institutions, cutting back bureaucracy for programmes which already have ethics approval

Patients, research participants, researchers, organisations, and institutions which oversee research are all being asked to either fill in an online survey or get involved in a number of workshops, both online and face-to-face between now and Friday 23 September. Staff from the UK Research Ethics Service and Research Ethics Committee members are also being consulted.

Professor Andrew George, HRA non-executive director, a researcher and former Research Ethics Committee member, has been chairing a special advisory group to help develop the ideas that will be discussed in the conversation.

He said: "Since Think Ethics was launched in September 2021, we have been having a conversation with a range of interested people, including members of the public, about how ethics review could change to make sure that people and ethics really are at the heart of research.

"We have learned from the experience of reviewing research during COVID-19 and already designed changes to ethics review.

"We are now focussing on how research ethics review is carried out – who does it and how it is done. Our aim is to make sure that each research study gets the right level of scrutiny, according to the nature of the research and the ethical issues it raises. By refining ethics review to be more proportionate, we aim to shorten the review timeline and improve the experience for researchers and ethics committee members."

The Research Ethics Service made up of 84 Research Ethics Committees which has a strong reputation globally. Research ethics review plays an important role in making health and social care research ethical and people centred. It played a vital role in the research response to the COVID-19 pandemic, reviewing research to the same high standards in a fraction of the time. This experience told us that they could build on those strong foundations to develop a service which is the best in the world.

The new public conversation is the next phase of this work and will help broaden these discussions.

Jonathan Fennelly-Barnwell, Deputy Director of Approvals at the HRA, who is leading Think Ethics, said: "We want ethically sound research to be set up quickly and efficiently for the benefit of NHS patients. Our ethics committee members provide a fantastic service to researchers and research participants, giving their time for free. We want to make the most of their time to focus their expertise where it counts.

"We want to refine the current ethics review journey for researchers, adopting increasing levels of scrutiny according to the nature of the research and the ethical issues it raises."

Jonathan Fennelly-Barnwell added: "We want to hear from you. Whether you are a member of the public, a current or former Research Ethics Committee member, staff involved in research review, a researcher, research organisation or you’ve taken part in a study, your opinion matters to us."

Euan Dick, Head of Chief Scientist Office (CSO), Scottish Government, said: "We are committed to putting participants and ethics at the heart of health and social care research. Working closely with the Health Research Authority and partners across the UK, this consultation marks an important next step. We encourage a range of voices to contribute as we work together to drive improvements for all those involved in research."

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