I have recently been assigned to an Ethics Reviewer position, and I just had my first training. One of the lecture slides for this training was quite audacious: It placed the UK's current academic ethics initiatives in a glorious history, beginning with the Nuremberg Code of 1947. The Nuremberg code came after the famous Nuremberg trials; it sought to codify ethical research guidelines, in response to the atrocities carried out as "research" by Nazi doctors. It was thrilling to learn that my new administrative position was only the latest episode in a grand story of moral enlightenment. I thought I was just taking on a new bureaucratic responsibility, so I was relieved and quite inspired to learn that I would really be fighting fascism.
The reason I describe this particular lecture slide as audacious is because — although my excellent training leader forgot to mention this — the Nazi doctors had been subject to an ethics code from the beginning: the 1931 Guidelines for Human Experimentation (see this 2011 article in Perspectives in Clinical Research, which argues that the Nuremberg Code plagiarized the 1931 Guidelines). When the doctors were later tried in the Nuremberg Trials, one of the defenses put forward by the doctors' lawyers was that the doctors were acting in accordance with the guidelines!
There is little doubt, then, that contemporary academic ethics review systems have some kind of relationship with the horrors of mid-twentieth century fascist totalitarianism. The only question is whether we are the good guys or the bad guys. Is the Ethics Review System (henceforth ERS) of the modern university a 180-degree turn away from the Third Reich's fake, evil system of research ethics, now functioning to protect people from harm? Or is the Ethics Review System of the modern university like the ethics system of the Third Reich, in a more sophisticated form, functioning primarily to protect the interests of research institutions while harming some other subpopulation?
To figure that out, we need to ask what exactly this system is doing. Is it doing something that looks more like "preventing horrific behaviors" or does it look more like "a state-sponsored system to promote a certain group of humans over others?" I will submit that it looks much more like a state-sponsored system to promote some humans over others. But I should admit that I am biased. If I chose the first option, that would not make for a very good blog post.
First, the reasons why it doesn't look like a system dedicated to preventing harm.
For starters, I've not been made aware of any cases in which some horror was prevented by the ERS. That doesn't mean much, because of course the ERS might have stopped some horrible researchers from even attempting to conduct some evil research they would have otherwise conducted. Still, even granting some effect here, my sense is that this counterfactual quantity of prevented harm is very small as a percentage of total research activity, if only because I've met a lot of academics. Most of them don't even do the types of research that can really hurt people. Most of the ethics approval applications are from undergraduate students, and most of those students are seeking to do the easiest and simplest research they can get away with. They want good grades, often in a short time frame, so typically they steer away from elaborate experiments injecting racial minorities with strange chemicals or whatever. It's just not really in their wheelhouse. Even social scientists analyzing public, secondary datasets are now being asked to submit ethics applications. When was the last time that harmed someone?
The really dangerous types of research, on the other hand, such as biomedical research, are not even strongly constrained by the ERS because if the ERS says no to anything, that research will just be conducted in the private sector. I don't know the details so I can't confirm this, but I've been told — in my initial training session, as a matter of fact — that the Cambridge lecturer who created the psycho-graphic Facebook app that would later be used by Cambridge Analytica to force the victory of Trump and Brexit (lol), was denied academic ethics approval. So then he just went the commercial route. The second to last reason I doubt the ERS prevents harm is that, even when ethics reviewers identify potential "ethical problems," the result is usually nothing more than some superficial language changes. Then it's approved. The ERS rarely gives a verdict of "you are absolutely not allowed to do anything like this, do not even try to reapply;" they usually just command linguistic modifications to how people frame their research plans. Finally, there's no actual enforcement of the research conduct itself, so this is a huge reason I doubt the ERS prevents harm. If I'm evil enough to conduct an experiment, say, covertly injecting a novel synthetic hormone into the testicles of non-consenting senior citizens, I'm probably evil enough to obtain ethics approval by simply omitting the part where I plan to secretly stab senior citizens in the balls.
Next, the reasons why the ERS looks more like a state-sponsored system to promote some human lives over others.
The key thing to understand is that — and you'd be amazed how quickly and frankly they will admit this explicitly, if you ask them, as I did! — "ethics" really means a kind of "quality control" for the purpose of university image-maintenance, in order to ensure the flow of money from government research councils. My trainer told me that, straight up.
The examples they gave us of ethics violations that have actually occurred recently under our system's monitoring — rather than legendary historical cases like the Stanford Prison Experiment — are not primarily ethical violations. They are intellectual 'quality' violations. For instance, one case was of a student who emailed out a bunch of survey questions written with very poor grammar. This was brought to the attention of the university because it reflected poorly on the university's brand as an education provider. This could lower the status of the university, which could lower the likelihood of government councils giving money to our university instead of others. Now it starts to make sense why so much time, energy, and manpower are invested in these "ethics" review systems. Is it well known that this is the real purpose of these systems? I have not read this anywhere else...
Another case they gave us was a case where a student sent their survey to the email address of someone who is now deceased. The wife of the deceased man was upset that a student would send an email to her deceased husband. Is it an ethical violation to send a letter to someone who you did not realize is now dead? Could anyone say with a straight face that this is an example of unethical research practice? I don't think so. The only problem here is that someone in the public was upset about something they associated with the university. It's a PR problem, and that's about it. There was no principle given for what would distinguish a case of mere subjective dislike of the study from an unethical study. This isn't even seen as a relevant question, and I'm afraid to say that the appearance of unquestioning conformity in this system does not bode well for the ERS's promise that it is totally not the Third Reich.
Therefore, ethics review bureaucracies in contemporary universities are systems the primary purpose of which is to keep money pumping from taxpayers into the coffers of high-IQ people shielding themselves from economic competition. It is the PR wing of a massive fleecing system.
This also reminds one how education, manners, and aesthetic refinement (e.g. the grammar in a research survey questionnaire) are moral performances. And moral performance is essentially status competition, and money flows to the winners of status competitions.
In other words, the relationship between the state-sponsored genocidal research systems of the totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century and the state-sponsored research systems of the liberal democracies in the 21st century is more like a parent-child relationship than an ethically-enlightened-opposition relationship.
Anyone who's ever been to an administrative meeting in a contemporary university will likely find my interpretation to have much more face validity than the other one...