Examining research ethics

Wheaton Professor Teresa CeledaAssistant Professor of Philosophy Teresa Celada has a bachelor’s degree in biological science, and a master’s degree and doctorate in philosophy. The cross-disciplinary combination provides her with an insightful perspective on the ethics of research involving human participants, which is the focus of her scholarship. Last January, she shared her expertise with the members of the National Institute of Public Health and the Ministry of Health in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. She worked with them to organize and conduct a two-and-a-half-day symposium on the responsible conduct of research. It was the first activity of a yearlong project aimed at developing a sustainable and culturally appropriate program in ethical research for Cambodia. We recently asked her about her work.

What are you studying?

My primary research interests regard the ethical use of biotechnology to enhance human traits and the ethical conduct both of research involving humans and international collaborative research. Currently, I am working on a philosophical paper about the nature and assessment of risk in research involving humans.

What led to your interest in this field?

I began working in research ethics as a graduate student. When one of my advisors introduced me to the AIDS International Training and Research Program (AITRP) team, I jumped at the chance to work with them. I wanted to do work in applied ethics because I wanted my philosophical work to have real-world application. Research ethics in particular has the added advantage of drawing on my undergraduate training in biological science. By exploring research ethics, I indulge my passions for both science and philosophy. You can see why Wheaton, with its Connections curriculum, and I are so well suited for each other. Of course, also, it is very gratifying to work on an important health problem such as HIV/AIDS, and to work with people from all over the world. The AITRP, which began in 1988 and is sponsored by the Fogarty International Center (FIC) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), aims to train scientists and health professionals from low- and middle-income countries to perform HIV-related research in their home country in order to build the country’s own capacity for the prevention, care and treatment of HIV/AIDS. The Fogarty Center sponsors/funds AITRP at universities across the U.S. Fellows accepted into the program receive multidisciplinary training in research ethics and biomedical and social science research related to HIV/AIDS. I provide research ethics training to the AITRP fellows at Brown University and work with them on the ethical design of their research.

Tell us about your work in Cambodia.

The Brown AITRP team has worked with Cambodian health professionals and researchers for more than ten years. In recent discussions, Cambodian advisors to the Ministry of Health (MOH) expressed a need for training researchers and ethics committee members in the Responsible Conduct of Research (RCR). The Cambodian ethics committee, the National Ethics Committee for Health Research (NECHR), was established in 2004 by order of the Cambodian prime minister, who also appoints its members from the MOH. By national regulation, the NECHR reviews all research involving human participants in Cambodia. Research activity increases in volume and type each year in Cambodia, and hence, so does the need for increasingly sophisticated RCR training. In response to the request, the Cambodian and Brown teams together, with a team from UCLA, proposed to develop a program in RCR responsive to the needs and culture of Cambodia. This collaborative project among other things aims to develop a course in RCR that will be offered each year at the Cambodian School of Public Health, a research ethics website for researchers, and a listserv. The project was launched at a symposium in Phnom Penh in January.

How does your international work fit into your course offerings at Wheaton?

It enables me to provide a global dimension to some of my classes. In ethics, I can draw on my work and international experience to inform the discussion of ethical relativism and shared moral values. In medical ethics, we spend three to four weeks discussing international collaborative clinical trials and health research and the ethics codes governing them.

Why is it important to examine the conduct of research in this country and elsewhere?

It is important that scientific research be conducted responsibly for both scientific and moral reasons. Historical evidence shows that scientific misconduct has occurred. Scientists rely on the research of other scientists; to do their own work, they need to be able to trust the scientific reports of their colleagues. Scientific misconduct is costly and impedes scientific progress. Educating scientists in the responsible conduct of research serves to promote the production of scientific knowledge. Historical evidence shows also that unethical research involving human participants has been conducted all over the world and research participants have suffered for it. At this time, the progress of medical science depends on research with human participants. Protecting those participants in research serves the public trust and shows respect and concern for human welfare. If the public can trust that research will be conducted ethically, then they will participate in research.

What are the most important lessons you hope your students learn in your courses?

I want my students to see that what they often experience as “problems” are best thought of as puzzles to be solved; problems are not obstacles but indications that something is to be learned, an insight is to be had. I want my students to appreciate that some answers/truths are complicated and so not to rush to judgment or inappropriately simplify matters. I want them to exercise the principle of charity, that is, to give the most rational interpretation to the statements and arguments of others, including their critics. I want students to understand that mastery requires hard work. I also want them to develop and practice analytical and critical-thinking skills, and to ask good questions.