Friday, July 03, 2009

Ethics, the scientist's hell.

Ethical committees serve a vital purpose. They ensure that scientists don't get to graft people's heads onto pig's bodies or jam needles under your fingernails to measure the decibels in your screams. I should say from the outset that I am in favour of ethical committees in general. There does need to be a screen between the public and the genuinely emotionless scientist. Most of us are a bit nuts, in one way or another.

In my case, if I wanted to investigate a haunting in a hospital, say, I would have to make sure I wasn't going to scare elderly patients to death by wandering around in the dark with a camera. I would have to guarantee not to mention why I was there to patients, some of whom would be frightened into a state requiring a continuous supply of bedpans by being trapped in a haunted building (whether it was a real haunting or not) and guarantee not to get in the way of the hospital's actual purpose, which used to be healing people but now seems more involved with making money and handing out new diseases.

Anyway. The point is I would have to ensure that whatever I was investigating, nobody would be harmed, upset or inconvenienced. That's fair enough. Pretending to be a surveyor working at night to investigate the effects of night-cooling on the building was always a good cover in such situations unless you happen across the retired surveyor in Ward 12 who insists on following you around and telling you you're doing it wrong... but that's a different story.

Not so long ago, a submission to an ethical committee consisted of one or two pages - a brief outline of what you plan to do, who might be affected and how you propose to avoid anyone being affected.

Now, an ethical submission is the size of a damn thesis. Every irrelevant detail you can think of is in there. It takes months to get a response which is inevitably 'revisions needed' and then you find that the cretin who asked for the pointless revisions has gone on holiday for a month and won't remember what he asked for when he gets back and then when he does read it he asks for more revisions until you're submitting something that looks exactly like the first version... and then it's accepted. Until someone notices something when you're halfway through the job and stops it for revisions. I am amazed that none of these people have yet been found dismembered in the woods.

Sorry about the random outbursts of rage. It's past midnight and still 30C (about 85F) here. People are melting in the streets. Long-haired dogs are spontaneously exploding. We get about a week or so of this every year. I think it's to stop us complaining about the snow in winter.

Our government hate the rainforests and are determined to destroy them, page by page. There is at least a tree's worth of paper wasted with each of these ethical applications now and there's only one reason. The red-tape brigade have swelled in numbers and each layer of them have to justify their existence by adding some more questions to the form.

It made me wonder. On an apparently unrelated note, I remember an author relating a story. Can't remember his name but he wrote cowboy stories. In one, he had a character pull a Colt 45, and he said the letters came pouring in. He had set the story two years before the Colt 45 was invented. At that time, revolvers were loaded with powder and ball, not cartridges.

I wouldn't have noticed but his readers did. He had to be accurate.

So what about the ethics committees? If Mary Shelly wrote Frankenstein now, the book would open with his first ethical submission and end with his 350th revision being rejected and the good Doctor taking up a career as a plumber. It wouldn't make much of a film.

Doctor Jekyll would spend the entire book filling out risk assessments, Van Helsing could not possibly get ethical approval to drive a stake through a corpse so Dracula would win. In 'Alien'. the crew would need to wait for, and respond to, the ethical committee's response before fighting the alien.

If the reality of modern ethical committees ever gets into fiction, expect some extraordinarily boring books and films in future.

Fortunately, abandoned buildings require no ethical assessment. If I was working for someone else, I'd have a raft of health-and-safety and risk assessments to fill out. As it is, I don't.

All I have is common sense. So far I have suffered no ill effects from the absence of paperwork.

1 comment:

Southern Writer said...

Great post. Cynicism, humor, and contempt. I've been on my own crusade the past week or two that deals with my own new snarling obiter dictum:

Never mistake authority for truth. The truth is always right, but authority is often wrong.

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