Ethics Practices in Human Dimensions Research

Human dimensions is a social science that seeks to understand how people make decisions about natural resources, and characteristics of individuals that affect those decisions. As part of the Stormwise project, human dimensions research is helping to understand public concerns about, and opportunities for, roadside tree and forest management in communities across Connecticut. Although data collection and analysis are the main foci, ethics also plays a critical role in the human dimensions research process.

Collecting research data directly from humans (i.e., human subjects) requires researchers to abide by a code of ethics similar to that of doctors and lawyers. This requirement is the result of past research misconduct, such as the Nazi experiments during WWII, Tuskegee Syphilis study, Milgram experiments, Stanford prison experiment, and human radiation experiments. In the United States, the National Research Act of 1974 initiated development of ethical guidelines for biomedical and behavioral research involving human subjects. An important outcome of this legislation was the Belmont Report (1978), which outlined three core principles for research involving human subjects: respect for persons, beneficence, and justice. Additional guidelines and recommendations were modeled after the Nuremberg Code, including voluntary consent, protection of subject identity, risk/benefit analysis, and the right of a subject to end participation in a study at any time.

In 1991, the Federal Policy for Protection of Human Subjects (45 CFR 46), referred to as the “Common Rule,” was published and integrated across 15 federal agencies. This policy mandates federal protection of human subjects from physical or psychological harm through review and formal approval of all research protocols and materials. Additional measures extend to “vulnerable” research populations including pregnant women, prisoners, and children. Other countries have similar ethical guidance authority, such as Canada’s Interagency Advisory Panel on Research Ethics and the UK’s Health Research Authority.

How does this relate to Stormwise social science research? The US Food and Drug Administration and the US Department of Health and Human Services Office of Human Research Protection maintains ethical oversight for research involving human subjects for all universities that receive federal research funding. This oversight provides extension of the Common Rule to universities through research ethics committees often referred to as Institutional Review Boards (IRB). Before researchers can initiate data collection from human subjects, all research protocols and data collection instruments (e.g., interview and focus group questions, surveys, etc.) must be reviewed and approved by the IRB. All members of a research team who will have access to data collected from human subjects must also complete a certification course focused on responsible conduct of research involving human subjects. You can read more about the UConn IRB here. You can read about ongoing Stormwise human dimensions research here.