Themes

Research ethics committee members' skills

What is this about?

In order to assess the ethical dimensions of research projects, members of research ethics committees (RECs) need expertise. But what skills constitute expertise? The European Network of Research Ethics and Research Integrity (ENERI)1 has identified crucial skills research ethics and research integrity experts should have. Four sets of skills can be distinguished, namely hard skills, soft skills, process skills, and emotional skills. While only some hard skills are necessary for conferring expert status to an individual, RECs benefit from memberships with diverse skill sets.

Why is this important?

Nowadays not only research projects on the biomedical sciences, but increasingly also research projects in various other disciplines, like psychology or education, require ethical review. For that reason, RECs will continue to play an important role in ethical research governance. Hence, an important question is which skills REC members should ideally have.

Conducting thorough ethical reviews of research projects not only presupposes sufficient disciplinary expertise to understand proposed research designs and methodologies, but also skills crucial for delivering practical recommendations that accord with prevalent social norms. Moreover, skills conducive to maintaining dialogical attitudes among all REC members certainly are beneficial as RECs modus operandi is deliberation. Consequently, systematizing these skills is helpful for setting up effective RECs and selecting members according to transparent criteria.

For whom is this important?

Ethics committee members, Research institutions, Policy makers, Funders

What are the best practices?

ENERI has recently published an insightful policy brief on what makes a research ethics and research integrity expert. Based on a participatory research design culminating in a series of consensus conferences with 50 stakeholders from various positions within or close to academia, ENERI has found the following skills to be particularly useful for REC members:

  • hard skills:
    • comprehensive knowledge of relevant guidelines, regulations, and laws
  • experience with ethical assessments or academic qualifications in relevant disciplines, like philosophy or law
  • research experience
  • legal expertise
  • analytical skills
  • the ability to think critically
  • soft skills:
    • communicative skills
  • interpersonal skills
  • attention to detail
  • the ability to manage and resolve conflicts
  • the ability to work collaboratively
  • process skills:
    • administrative and management skills
  • decision-making skills
  • the ability to transform abstract theoretical ideas into practical recommendations
  • emotional skills:
    • open mindedness
  • independence
  • awareness of social norms and the likely consequences of breaching them
  • personal commitment

According to ENERI, RE experts individually inevitably need hard skills, but do not necessarily have to possess all soft skills, process skills, and emotional skills. However, all soft skills, process skills, and emotional skills should be present on the institutional level in RECs which, therefore, should have a diverse membership with complementary skills.

In particular, the chair's role is crucial. The chair needs to have broad soft skills, process skills, and emotional skills to guarantee that all represented perspectives are included in assessment, review, and advice procedures. Hence, chairpersons need more skills than ordinary board members due to the pivotal position they occupy in organizing inclusive deliberations.

References

  1. European Network of Research Ethics and Research Integrity. Available at: http://eneri.eu/. Accessed June 2019.