top of page

Session and Workshop Abstracts

Session 1C (S1C) - Abstracts

University ethics review processes

Paper 1: Ethical Decision-Making in Institutional Ethics Committees (IECs) in New Zealand

Speaker(s): Thushini Jayawardena-Willis
Keywords:  Ethical Decision-Making, Human Research Ethics Committees, Diversity, New Zealand


Institutional Ethics Committees (IECs) in New Zealand are generally accredited by the Health Research Council (HRC). These Committees are responsible for assessing the ethicality of human research projects that involve human participants, their data or tissue. Such projects derive from a wide range of disciplines, such as social sciences, management, law, psychology and ‘low risk’ health research projects that are exempt from the Health and Disability Ethics Committee (HDEC) review (Gibson et al., 2020). New Zealand’s Education Act (1989) requires academic staff and students to exercise their right to ‘academic freedom and autonomy’ according to the ‘highest ethical standards’ (see e.g. Sections 161 (2) (a) and 161 (3) (a)). However, it fails to define what constitutes ‘highest ethical standards’. An indication of what these might be are stipulated in the ethics guidelines for health research, such as the National Ethics Advisory Committee (NEAC) guidelines (2019), HRC Guidelines (2012), Te Ara Tika Guidelines for Māori Research Ethics and Health Research Guidelines for Pacific Research (2014). Nevertheless, there is no single legislation, policy or guideline that directs researchers as to which ethical standards/principles they should adhere to when conducting human research. Moore and Donnelly (2018) highlight two significant aspects of IEC decision-making in New Zealand: code consistency review and ethics consistency review.


While HRC Guidelines highlight the significance of having a diverse membership in terms of technical/subject matter expertise, little emphasis is made to encourage IECs to recruit members of diverse backgrounds, such as ethnicity, religion, gender, sexuality, or people with disabilities. See for example, Section 4.2 c) (v) of the Guidelines, which states that the Committee membership should be half male and half female, which explicitly ignores gender diversity in New Zealand. Likewise, the HRC Guidelines seem to undermine the importance of having members of different cultural backgrounds, ethnicities, or religions, as “other cultural considerations” is recognised as a low priority when it comes to IEC membership appointments (See e.g., Section 4.2 c) (vi)). Furthermore, the HRC Guidelines recommend individual members “to abstain from some or all of the decision-making process because of strong personal, moral or religious reasons” (p. 8) by ignoring the fact that an individual’s ethnicity, religion, spirituality and gender diversity have an impact on their moral reasoning and ethical decision-making (see e.g. Jayawardena-Willis et al., 2019, Fernando & Jackson, 2006). Hence, the aim of this research is to explore and understand how IECs make ethical decisions through the lived experience of former IEC members and thereby contribute and extend Moore and Donnelly’s (2018) research. 

Paper 2: University Ethics Review and Approval and the contexts created by Covid-19: One Faculty’s experiences of ‘work in progress’

Speaker(s): Lucy Davies, Tatiana Dias Souteiro, Calum Gordon, Phil Jones

Keywords: university research, ethics, Covid-19

The paper is an analysis of the responses developed to date within a university research ethics system, that of UCL’s Institute of Education’, to the ethics review and approval processes in relation to the contexts created by Covid-19.  The University creates separation in roles between ‘academic’ and ‘professional services’ staff, and these relate to how the responses to Covid-19 were designed, managed and reviewed in terms of ethical approval. The presentation is jointly made by staff who were involved in the process from both academic and professional service perspectives.  

The paper will consist of a narrative of the responses over time, along with a critical analysis of the process. The narrative will include: (a) the organisational responses over time and the dynamics between different ‘participants’ within this; (b) the products of these organisational responses; (c the impact and review of the responses. 

The analysis will address: 

  1. The ways in which change in both ethical review and approval was understood and constructed - in particular, how the researcher and research participant featured within this;

  2. the nature and effects of the complex organisational dynamics within the University system, between, for example, the central organisational processes operating across the University as a whole and Faculty and Department or Research Centre;  

  3. how different contexts and situations of research were engaged with in relation to ethics  review and approval. 

We will ask what has been learned so far, and what are the implications of this learning for the time ahead? Within (i)-(iii) Issues will be explored that particularly featured within our experiences -  such as the dynamics between the responses to Covid-19 and debates about areas such as research ethics approval and ‘risk’, ‘non-maleficence’, ‘vulnerability’ and ‘justice’. We will explore the relationships between the specific responses developed and critical concerns about the  nature of university ethics committees and their work as being ‘technologies of accountability and control … to elicit conformity and render academics more responsive to management’(Kohn and Shore, 2017: 243), drawing on Lederman’s concepts of ‘regulatory hypervigilance’ (2006) and Schrag’s (2010)  ‘ethical imperialism’. The paper aims to share experiences of our particular response in terms of University research ethics review and approval and the contexts created by Covid-19 and the knowledge and insight gained, so far, from this time. "

Paper 3: “Rotten Orange Problems” in the Physical Sciences and a Developing Course in Ethics for Nuclear MSc Students

Speaker(s): G. R. Mackenzie

Keywords: Physics, engineering, nuclear

I am a PhD student in Physics at the University of Bristol, working on diamond-based photovoltaics to generate small amounts of electricity from gamma rays, for such applications as improving the safety of existing radioactive waste stores. I have some basic formal ethical training, and deliver an extra-curricular lecture series, Introduction to Ethics for Nuclear Scientists and Engineers, to the Nuclear MSc students at the UoB South West Nuclear Hub. 

The goal of this course is to give students the tools to recognise ethical decisions when they need to be made, and make them within the timeframes that working life demands. This talk will start on the ethical landscape facing early-career researchers in the physical sciences and engineering. It will explore a particularly demonstrative personal experience, focussing on the concept of epistemic limits and “Rotten Orange Problems” – an analogy for routine tasks which will, occasionally, conceal thorny ethical questions. It will from there move to a description of the UoB course. 


The ethics of nuclear weapons have been developed in bursts since the invention of the technology [1], drawing perspectives from a broad range of ethical traditions [2], and producing bona-fide ethical construct such as Nye’s Five Maxims. By contrast, work on the ethics of nuclear energy has been more sporadic; in 2015, on the question of whether there exists “an ethics of nuclear energy”, Sven Ove Hansson has said “the answer is, unfortunately: it depends” [3]. There is a sense in which attempts to influence ethics within the discipline of nuclear energy have only recently ramped up. Be that as it may, the civil and military aspects of the industry are inextricably linked, despite the fact that support for nuclear weapons development is by no means total, or even typical, among nuclear energy researchers. This tendency for interlinked development will be illustrated via another personal experience. The impact of this state of affairs on building the course will be discussed. Finally, the intended future development of the course will be explained, and I will appeal for perspectives from the audience which might strengthen it.

bottom of page