Awareness of risks
An increasing awareness of risks involved in research has come about partly through some well-publicised instances of researchers appearing to show insufficient concern for their participants’ welfare. One example is the case of Genie, a girl in California who was discovered at 13 years old to have been seriously mistreated by her parents since birth. She was then the subject of extensive research, since she appeared to offer a ‘natural experiment’ into the effects of early deprivation (Rymer, 1994). The interest in her as a research subject seemed to have taken priority over her welfare. Another classic case is that of ‘Little Albert’, who was ‘conditioned’ to fear rats and other small furry creatures by the use of a classical conditioning technique where an iron bar was struck behind him noisily whenever a rat model was displayed (Watson, 1924).
In Great Britain, the increasing regulation of research with humans has been influenced by the National Health Service (NHS) and the control of medical research by the National Research Ethics Service (NRES). NRES operates along with the Medical Research Council (MRC), the Wellcome Trust and the Nuffield Foundation: the three largest funding bodies for medical and medically related research in the UK.
Any research involving NHS patients, staff or premises now requires compliance with a set of standards defined by NRES and the completion of extensive documentation and formal approval procedures. These involve detailed scrutiny of the research plan for its potential impact on participants, services and staff, as well as its perceived scientific value and the need for an institution (normally a university or an NHS Trust) to act as sponsor for the project, thus accepting responsibility for the ethical integrity of the work and liability for any harm caused.