Ethics review of humanitarian research

Research ethics committees (RECs) play crucial roles in providing oversight and accountability for research activities, including research in humanitarian settings. RECs with a variety of affiliations are involved in the review of humanitarian research, including RECs situated in the locale where the crisis has occurred (often affiliated with governments or universities), RECs affiliated with non-governmental or international organizations, and RECs affiliated with universities in other countries and to which study investigators are affiliated. In some cases, RECs from all three categories may be involved in the review of a single protocol. Elsewhere, only the local REC is responsible for research review (e.g. when researchers based in the locale where the crisis has occurred are leading the research). In rare situations, a local REC may not exist or may not be functioning during a crisis, and other means of ensuring local oversight are required.

Some considerations for REC review of humanitarian research are the following:

  • Review of urgent protocols: Some humanitarian research, especially in sudden-onset emergencies, needs to be implemented quickly. This can be challenging to align with the standard operating procedures of many RECs. In consequence, many RECs that review urgent protocols have established procedures to facilitate their timely review. For example, RECs have instituted policies to review generic protocols prior to a crisis event, to be followed by a focused review after the crisis occurs and the research site has been identified. More about policies for urgent protocols are included in section 4 of this repository.
  • Accessing information: It may also be challenging for RECs to access relevant information about a research setting if a humanitarian crisis is ongoing, including background conditions where the research would take place. Challenges to access relevant and current information are especially likely for international RECs, but may also occur for national RECs.
  • A REC and its members may be directly affected if an emergency occurs in their city or region. During some crises, RECs receive an increased volume of protocol submissions. Both of these situations will have consequences for the functioning of the REC. Different strategies have been proposed in such situations, including establishing a central REC responsible for the review of protocols linked to a specific crisis, or partnering between RECs.
  • In a crisis setting, research and research ethics review may be politicized; In some settings, RECs may need to protect their independence and resist attempts to influence their deliberations.

The Ethics Review Board of Médecins Sans Frontières have published several papers (here and here) about their experience reviewing humanitarian research protocols. They offer insights about how a REC affiliated with an international NGO has responded to humanitarian protocols.

The experiences and perceptions of REC members who had reviewed disaster protocols were studied to understand how they approached disaster research review. Findings regarding the importance of timely, responsive and rigorous ethics review of disaster research, and some of the challenges associated with doing so, are reported here and discussed in a short video.