Josef Korbel School of International Studies - Ethics of Engagement

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Thomas Schelling testifies before Congress in October, 1969

Date Submitted: 3/14/2020

Question summary:

Is there an ethical issue involved in looking at the pandemic as a research opportunity?

Full question:

Some scholars seem to be altogether too eager to look upon the COVID 19 pandemic as a great opportunity to answer some research questions. How do people respond to quarantines? Do pandemics strengthen the hands of autocrats? How will it affect different economies? What a great natural experiment we have here. Am I wrong to feel uncomfortable with this? I know that we should study this crisis to understand the societal response to infectious disease outbreaks, and that we need to take away lessons learned. But I still feel a bit uneasy with the glee that some seem to have at the research opportunities provided by a massive crisis like this. What do you think?

Response 1

Great question! One of the things that stands out to me in your question has to do with the “glee” that you note. I agree that it is important to take opportunities to learn, when we can, as long as the studies are ultimately benefiting people and not subjecting them to harm or too much risk. There is also something, though, to timing and the tone of how one approaches such a study.  If someone can take this on right now, without diverting resources that could be otherwise used to help respond to, or mitigate, the crisis, my advice would be to think carefully about framing it, and the words that you use to talk about it to yourself and to others.  I’ve always been uncomfortable talking about things like “taking advantage” of this natural experiment or taking too far the behavioral economics language of “games” when we’re talking about real people’s lives. I would also be very cautious about recruitment if someone is thinking about about an original data collection project.  Of course, most IRBs have suspended in-person research, but I received an email the other day about an ongoing study that wanted to me to answer questions online (not related to COVID-19) and I was annoyed that the authors somehow thought I had time with everything else going on to fill this out — so it might be a bit too soon for many.  Finally, to add, for those contemplating research on COVID-19 right now, there is a lot to learn from the research methods and ethics literatures (slowly developing) on fieldwork in humanitarian and conflict contexts. 

Response 2

This is an important question and I can certainly understand some unease about what you identify as the glee with which some scholars might have dived into COVID-19 related research or are already considering doing so. And yet, the pandemic is a massive, global, and multidimensional phenomenon with extraordinary political, social, and economic effects in the immediate term that are sure to be far-reaching and enormously consequential — so it does offer a research opportunity and one that is immediately relevant at many levels. One ethical frame through which to examine your concerns is to ask whether any harm is being done by COVID-19 related research and, if so, to whom (individuals, communities, etc.). From that perspective, I think that the key arbiter of whether such research is ethical is essentially the set of standards we should (and do, as a scholar community) apply to ALL research. Are the three principles established by the Belmont report for the ethical conduct of human subjects research (respect for persons, beneficence, and justice) being met — and not just to the letter of the law in terms of specific human subjects potentially being researched, but in spirit in terms of the broader research enterprise? If so, then I’m not sure I see another ethical frame that would suggest such research should NOT be undertaken. Indeed, one could argue that immediate COVID-19 related research is actually imperative, if there is any chance that such studies could mitigate the enormous human cost of the pandemic.


Response 3

The question of how to treat COVID-19, from a research perspective, is complicated. Our first thoughts should be on making sure that scholars, their families, their communities, and their societies are safe, secure, and ok. And that everyone has appropriate medical care. We also need to be respectful of the fact that this crisis is impacting all of us and our colleagues in different ways, depending on their job security, child care situation, and many other factors. All of that being said, there is nothing wrong, in theory, with thinking about ways that this crisis may improve our understanding of the world through our research. It is our job to use our expertise to improve our grasp of how the world works. To the extent that studies using aspects of COVID-19 can help enhance our knowledge of global affairs, it seems perfectly reasonable to pursue those lines of inquiry. However, it is also totally reasonable to be uncomfortable, given the issue at hand. And it is especially important that any survey research, issues involving human subjects, etc., undergo clear scrutiny by IRB and other applicable research reviews.