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

Last updated on 10 Jun 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.

Think Ethics Master.jpg

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 and 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.

Professor Andrew George wearing a suit, shirt and tie head and smiling at the camera - a head and shoulders image

‘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.’

Professor Andrew George, HRA non-executive director, a researcher and former Research Ethics Committee member

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.

A head and shoulders image of Jonathan Fennelly Barnwell

‘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.

‘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.’

Jonathan Fennelly-Barnwell, Deputy Director of Approvals at the HRA, who is leading Think Ethics
Lord Kamall

'Health and care research is vital to transforming the NHS, but we must ensure that research is delivering for everyone.

'This consultation will be crucial to ensuring researchers can carry out innovative and ground-breaking work as quickly as possible, while retaining the solid ethical foundations needed.

'Research has been vital in our fight against COVID and in saving thousands of lives, and I would encourage a diverse range of voices to contribute to this discussion to ensure our world-leading research remains patient-focused and meets the highest ethical standards.'

Lord Kamall, Minister for Innovation
Janice Bailey

‘We welcome this important discussion, and would strongly encourage people to provide their views on how we can make positive changes and improvements to the process, while maintaining the current high standard of ethical review the public expects within health and social care research.’

Dr Janice Bailie, Assistant Director, Northern Ireland Health and Social Care, Research and Development Division
Alex Newberry

‘Here in Wales we want to make sure every research project is ethically reviewed so that the interests of participants are fully considered and it’s as impactful as possible.

‘We’re proud to have Welsh ethics committee members helping researchers and research participants on a range of health and social studies, like our counterparts from across the UK, and the pandemic has shone a light on how we can redefine the way we work.

‘This consultation will provide a great platform to share experiences and ideas on how we can make efficiencies while retaining the quality and nature of ethical review to ensure we’re funding and correctly supporting research which benefits not only people in Wales but the UK and across the world.’

Alex Newberry, Head of Public Involvement, Research and Development Division, Welsh Government

‘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.’

Euan Dick, Head of Chief Scientist Office (CSO), Scottish Government

Find out more about Think Ethics.

Take part in the online survey which runs from 13 June until October 2022.

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