Ethics Committee Evaluations
Imagine you are a member of the Ethical Review Committee for a reputable university. It is the committee’s responsibility to evaluate and either approve or disapprove proposals submitted by faculty members who want to use either humans or animals for research experiments. The proposals describe the experiments, including potential benefits of the research as well as any discomfort or harm that they may cause the subjects. You must either approve the research or deny permission for the experiments. It is not your job to suggest improvements on technical aspects of the projects, such as experimental design.
For each of the following four cases, explain why you would either approve or disapprove the proposed research experiments. Evaluate each proposal based on the four main principles of ethical research provided in this lesson. Every research experiment must follow all four principles to be considered ethical.
The Psychology Department is requesting permission from your committee to use 10 rats per semester for demonstrations in a physiological psychology class. The students will work in groups of three: each group will be given a rat.
The students will first perform surgery on the rats. Each animal with be anesthetized. Following standard surgical procedures, an incision will be made in the scalp and two holes drilled in the animal’s skull. Electrodes will be lowered into the brain to create lesions on each side. The animals will then be allowed to recover.
Several weeks later, the effects of destroying this part of the animal’s brain will be tested in a shuttle avoidance task in which animals will learn when to cross over an electrified grid. The instructor admits the procedure is a common demonstration and that no new information will be gained from the experiment. She argues, however, that students taking a course in psychology must have the opportunity to engage in small animal surgery to see firsthand the effects of brain lesions.
Your university includes a college of veterinary medicine. In the past, the students practiced surgical techniques on dogs acquired from a local animal shelter. There have been some objections to this practice and the veterinary school wants the approval of your committee to continue this practice. They make the following points:
- Almost all of the animals will eventually be killed at the animal shelter. It is wasteful of life to breed animals for the vet school when there is an ample supply of animals that will be euthanized anyway.
- It costs at least 10 times as much to breed animals for research purposes.
- Research with dogs from animal shelters and the practice surgeries will, in the long run, aid the lives of animals by training veterinarians.
A local group of animal welfare activists demanded that you deny the school’s request. They argue that the majority of these animals are lost or stolen pets and it is tragic to think that previously loved dogs could end up on a surgical table for an experiment. Furthermore, they claim that as people become aware that animals taken to shelters may end up in research laboratories, they will stop using the shelters and simply set these animals free.
Dr. Hames is requesting permission to do a sleep deprivation study involving young children. He has hypothesized that children between the ages of five and seven need uninterrupted sleep to do well with basic memory functions. He has proposed a study where children in this age category will be awakened each hour during one night in his laboratory, and then tested on basic memory abilities. These results will then be compared with those obtained after a normal night of sleep. He is offering parents a $250 incentive if they will agree to allow their children to participate in this study. The children will be given a gift card to a local toy store for their participation.
Professor Lennon is planning to do a research study to show the outcome of a serious back injury involving the spine and the possible effects on the part of the brain affecting balance and coordination. To conduct her study, she will need volunteers to have a painful spinal tap procedure which would simulate the damage associated with severe back injuries. The spinal taps have a slight chance of causing severe pain that could last for several days. There is also a very slight risk of nerve damage that could cause some short-term paralysis. Subjects will be informed of the risks involved and will be paid $1200 for the spinal tap and for a six night stay that will be required to evaluate the outcome after this procedure.
Prof. Harmon is a developmental psych biologist. His research concerns the genetic control of behaviors. He plans to do an experiment to show how behavior develops when an animal has no opportunity to learn a response. He hypothesizes that the grooming sequence of mice might be a behavior pattern that is innate. To investigate whether the motor patterns involved are acquired or innate, he wants to raise the animals with no opportunity to learn the response. To show that the behaviors are innate, he needs to demonstrate that mice raised with no opportunity to perform any grooming-like movements make the movements when they are old enough to exhibit that behavior.
Prof. Harmon proposes to conduct the experiment on 10 newborn mice. As soon as the animals are born, they will be anesthetized and their front limbs amputated. This procedure will ensure that they will not be reinforced for making random grooming movements that remove debris from their bodies. The mice will then be returned to their mothers. The animals will be observed on a regular schedule using standard observational techniques. Limb movements will be filmed and analyzed. If grooming is a learned behavior, then the mice should not make grooming movements with their stumps. If, however, grooming movements are innately organized in the brain, then the animals should eventually show grooming-like movements with the stumps.
In his proposal, Prof. Harmon notes that the experimental results cannot be directly applied to human behavior. He argues, however, that the experiment will shed light on an important theoretical debate in the field of developmental psychology. He also stresses that the amputations are painless and the animals will be treated well after the operation.