By: Steve Prager and Maya Rajasekharan
The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy characterizes beneficence as connoting an act of mercy, kindness, or that specifically promotes the good of others. Research at CIAT is specifically done with the intent to benefit others. While no CIAT research would ever be intended to cause harm, it is important to have due diligence processes in place to minimize the possibility.
You might immediately be thinking that your research would cause no harm. What about untended consequences? Is there any possibility that participation in a research project could have a negative consequence? Let’s consider a few possibilities:
- A study on the palatability of a crop variety results in a young man being hospitalized due to accidental contamination of the cookware.
- A woman is asked a sensitive question about household decision making in front of her partner and her honest answer angers her partner.
- An official participating in a focal group shares an opinion contrary to the local governor’s political position and loses her job.
- A farmer participating in a research study is discovered to have planting material contaminated by a difficult pest and this planting material is later confiscated and destroyed by the government without remuneration.
None of the above are real cases, but each represents a very real possibility. As an organization, CIAT is committed to make sure that our research does not inadvertently harm others in any way. We now have institutional infrastructure to help prevent the above from happening or, at the very least, to help make sure that research participants are fully aware of the parameters of their participation.
The aforementioned institutional infrastructure is referred to as the Institutional Review Board or IRB. It is becoming increasingly important to have an IRB process:
- Many journals require evidence of an IRB review in order to publish research involving human subjects.
- In the CGIAR, some of the CRPs are now adopting language that requires either center-level or external review of all research involving human subjects.
- Some funding agencies, as well as the regulations governing research in many of the countries in which we work, require review and approval of all research involving human subjects in any way.
The IRB process is relatively straight forward and has been designed to be as transparent and simple as possible. Researchers interested in conducting activities that involve human subjects are asked to describe their research purpose and methods using an IRB proposal form. Key aspects that are considered by the IRB committee are the type of interaction (e.g., a short survey vs. a focus group vs. the need to take blood samples), the way in which individually identifiable information will be collected and managed, the text and methods used in the consent process, and anything else potentially unique to a specific research effort.
The outcome of a preliminary IRB review may be an “exemption” (i.e., the research is minimally invasive and basic measures are all that are need to ensure beneficence), or a full review. In the case of a full review, a quorum of IRB committee members will be asked to comment on the research method and specific recommendation, and the researcher may be asked to present additional material. The vast majority of CIAT research is likely to meet the exempt status. In most cases, the recommendations are relatively basic and involve minor requirements for modifications to the informed consent.
Since the IRB has been formally operating at CIAT, we have reviewed a number of proposals. These proposals, the responses and related information are made available to staff for learning purposes.