This artiicle was published in Forskningsetikk no. 1, 2019 (in Norwegian). It was translated "in house", not by professionals. 

Funders of research grants differ in the degrees of responsibility they take to ensure that the projects they fund are sound.

"Demands for clear emphasis on ethics and integrity are much greater for EU applications. We need to discuss this in Norway," says Vidar Enebakk, director for the Norwegian National Research Ethics Committee for the Social Sciences and the Humanities (NESH).

Starting this year, the Research Council of Norway has changed the demands for ethical reflection in project applications. The demands are still far from those in Horizon 2020, the EU framework programme for funding research, technological development and innovation.

One of the major differences is that the EU uses its own ethics panel to assess the researchers' review of ethical issues. In some cases, ethics experts are directly involved as consultants in the project and report independently to the EU.

A damper on the joy

Aike Peter Rots is an associate professor at the Department of Cultural Studies and Oriental Languages at the University of Oslo [UiO]. In the summer of 2018 he received a Starting Grant from the European Research Council [ERC], a grant awarded to researchers early on in their career.

"I didn't anticipate the extra burden of reviewing the ethical aspects afterwards. Initially it put a damper on the joy of receiving almost NOK 15 million in research funding," says Rots.

As part of a grant preparation process, the ERC's panel of experts initiates an independent ethics review for all projects that have at least one ethical issue. To receive the grant, the project must pass their review.

The process can entail several steps and can be quite extensive, depending on the scope and complexity of the ethical challenges.

"In the original application I wrote approximately two pages about the most important ethical challenges of the project. I thought it was quite detailed but it was not enough. They expected something much more detailed," explains Rots.

Important details

In September, he received a report from the ERC's ethics experts with numerous questions requiring answers.

Rots leads a project researching the relations between humans and aquatic mammals in maritime regions of East Asia, focusing on popular ritual practices and beliefs. An important part of the methodology involves ethnographic field studies.

"I got questions about the consent form, about what to do when interviewing children, if I were making videos, about data security and much more," says Rots.

Some of these issues had not been under consideration beforehand. Some entailed concerns he knew little about.

"Thus, I was forced to consider much more carefully the methods of the project and how to protect our informants," says the researcher.

Stricter since 2018

A few weeks later, he submitted a new self-assessment of the ethical aspects of the project. It was around eight pages long. Then he had to sit back and wait.

In November, he received an answer stating that the project had been approved. The prerequisite was that he would later submit documentation that the project had also obtained approvals from the local authorities in all the countries in question.

It was not until December, almost half a year after the application was granted, that the agreement for financing was signed and the payment could be implemented.

"The process was both time-consuming and labour-intensive, but I have learned a whole lot and become more aware of prospective challenges. I also find it preferable to think things through early on and become aware of different issues before the project starts, rather than being overwhelmed by them during fieldwork," says Rots.

Senior Advisor at the Faculty of Humanities Magnus Gardar Evensen helped Rots in the process. He says the ERC became much more exacting in the handling of ethics in the applications in 2018.

"It is probably a consequence of the introduction of the General Data Protection Regulation [GDPR]. It seems to have made Europe think more about both privacy and ethics in the project applications," he says.

The assessment must be impartial

For other EU projects the process of ethical quality assurance can be even more extensive than it was in Rots's case.

"If the researchers give an incomplete or unclear ethical assessment of their project, there may be requirements for closer follow-ups of the ethics: An expert or a committee will follow the project and act as consultants or supervisors," says Enebakk in NESH.

Considerable emphasis has been placed on ensuring an impartial ethical evaluation and that there is a genuine system ensuring it. Any ethics consultants or supervisors report therefore independently of the project management.

"In the field of research ethics, the EU shoulders much clearer responsibility on those who distribute funding. NESH is strongly aware that more emphasis should be placed here in Norway as well," says Enebakk.

A multitude of agencies finance research, innovation and investigations, or other forms of knowledge production. NESH wants to turn the attention towards these.

"How is their responsibility described? This is insufficiently clarified, says Enebakk.

Not legally responsible

The new Research Ethics Act of 2017 made it much clearer that ensuring research ethics is not solely the responsibility of the individual researcher. The act placed a much more concrete responsibility on research institutions. However, the institutions that distribute money for research were not mentioned in the text.

The preparatory work for the act states that the main responsibility for the exercise of good research practice and for adhering to recognised research ethical norms lies with all the researchers involved and with research institutions.

In the legislative draft bill sent by the Government to the Norwegian Parliament, the Storting, the role of the Norwegian Research Council was limited to inform researchers to follow the norms of research ethics. Moreover, it emphasises that funding from the Council does not in any way suggest that the research has been approved according to such norms.

"Our policy is that the project manager has the main responsibility for ensuring that the research is carried out in accordance with research ethical guidelines," says Rune Schjølberg, special adviser in the Research Council of Norway.

Professional experts handle the ethics

The Council has taken its new system for application requirements and assessment criteria from the ERC, but they will not be introducing independent ethical assessments.

"We have not yet set up to hire designated experts to assess the research ethics in the applications. We believe that the experts we have must master the ethical standard of their fields and be well versed in handling research ethical issues," says Schjølberg.

This is in contrast with the more active role of ERC in securing research ethics.

"The question is whether the Research Council, and others who allocate money for research, have an independent responsibility for research ethics, or whether they are only responsible for contributing to others who take such responsibility. In other words: Is it okay to give funds to projects that are arguably unjustifiable?" asks Enebakk in NESH.

Helene Ingierd is director of the National Committee for Research Ethics in Science and Technology (NENT). She stresses that several parties have clearly recommended that those who grant money for research must take their share of responsibility for research ethics.

"As an example, Science Europe strongly recommends that funding institutions take this responsibility," says Ingierd.

Science Europe is a collaborative body for 36 organisations, most of them research councils, stemming from 27 countries. The Research Council of Norway is one of these members.

Reputation and trust

"Internationally, intensified focus is on research's mounting impact on social development. In this context, the ethical reflection must also be emphasised," says Schjølberg.

At the same time, the general trust in science is under pressure. An increasing stream of propaganda and 'fake news' undermines and attacks research results and researchers. Privacy is subject to massive pressure from commercial actors who make money on people's data. Integrity and ethics are vital antidotes.

"This is about securing the reputation of and confidence in research," says Enebakk.

He believes many researchers have good instincts when it comes to what is and is not ethically sound, but they often lack the language to argue and justify their assessments.

"Scientists must be able to justify and articulate why. This is a democratic ideal. The public are entitled to good explanations why researchers do what they do. If science is considered offensive or ground-breaking, scientists must be able to defend and explain," says Enebakk.

Problematic research

Ethics provides a language and a premise for building arguments which explain why certain research approaches are prudent and right.

The Norwegian National Research Ethics Committees comprise an important resource in this context. The Research Council of Norway points out that researchers must follow the specific guidelines of their fields which have been developed by the committees. According to Ingierd in NENT, the Council has never sought assistance in assessing difficult projects during the application process.

"We have often called on the Research Council to use us in that manner," she says.

NENT, on the other hand, has several times considered ethically problematic research after the project has received funding and has started.

"In some cases, we have questioned how thoroughly the research ethics assessment has actually been," says Ingierd.

Challenging process

For Rots at UiO, there were clear advantages with the thorough process of attaining the ethical green light for the EU application. That said, he believes there is a lot of room for improvement.

"It all could have been simplified, and the communication with those who assessed the ethics of our project could have been much better," he says.

For instance, Rots experienced that the questions he had to answer were unclear and partly difficult.

"I got help from the administration here, but I had almost needed legal advisors as well," he says.

The associate professor stresses that the complexity and scope of laws, rules and ethical guidelines have increased and achieving an overview can be difficult.

"My impression is that many researchers are very confused and do not know what's expected of them," he says.

Many questions

Enebakk in NESH says that the committee has received many questions about ethics requirements in the EU.

"The need for clarification encouraged NESH to make a general statement outlining the application processing in Horizon 2020, including advice for researchers and research administrations in Norway.

According to Rots, the complexity is also an argument for why designated ethics experts should look at the projects during the application phase.

"If the Research Council of Norway leaves it to the academic panels to assess ethics, they are not taking this seriously. You can't expect ordinary researchers without specialization in this to consider both the ethical and legal aspects," he says.

He is also critical of the fact that the academic panels' assessments in this area will affect the final grade of the project applications.

"The ethics should be considered either good enough or not good enough. I think the distinction between the academic part and the ethics assessment afterwards is good in the EU system," says Rots.

Rather trust than control

Kari Steen-Johnsen is research director for politics, democracy and civil society at the Department of Social Research. She thinks actors who fund research have a responsibility in the realm of ethics, but does not believe designated ethics panels are the solution.

"I am glad that the Research Council of Norway does not go that way. What we need are responsible institutions that are mature in handling ethics. I have more faith in the trust regime than the control regime. But it's very good that ethics expertise is in place and available to the projects," she says.