Considering Consent: Research Ethics

If you read a newspaper or watch a news broadcast, you’ll notice that headlines about new research studies crop up almost daily. Before a study is published, in fact, before work on a research project even begins, it must undergo an ethics review. Research that involves human subjects raises unique and complex ethical, legal, social and political issues. The field of research ethics focuses on the analysis of the ethical issues that are raised when people are research participants.

Dr. Fern Brunger is an associate professor of health-care ethics at Memorial University and a member of Memorial’s Bioethics Group. She provides ethics consultation services and education for Eastern Health through the Provincial Health Ethics Network of Newfoundland and Labrador. She has made significant contributions to research ethics whether through her teaching, her own research, and particularly through her involvement with the Health Research Ethics Authority (HREA) and her appointment as Senior Chair of the Newfoundland and Labrador Health Research Ethics Board (HREB).

Dr. Fern Brunger

Dr. Fern Brunger

She has recently been recognized for her outstanding leadership and tireless efforts in championing and raising awareness of the importance of research ethics in the research community. Nominated by her peers at the HREA and HREB, Dr. Brunger was awarded the Marilyn Harvey Award to Recognize the Importance of Research Ethics. Memorial University established this award to recognize individuals who have demonstrated leadership in creating an environment of excellence in this area.

So how did Dr. Brunger come to develop an interest in research ethics? She says: “Way back in the time I was completing my PhD in medical anthropology, the human genome project was being talked about and that attracted me into the field of ethics and genetics.

As an anthropologist I was particularly interested in research into human genetic diversity and the question of whether and how entire communities could consent to research that might impact group identity – or, more importantly, whether and how they could say ‘no’ to participating. Up to then, it was the assumption that consent to research was an individual matter; the idea of having communities consent was novel and intriguing.

Dr. Brunger has continued to focus on community consent in her recent work in Labrador. She has just wrapped up a multi-year project in collaboration with the NunatuKavut Community Council on research ethics governance for the Southern Inuit. This work was recognized by Memorial University with the university President’s Award for community engagement.

As part of that project, Dr. Brunger published a set of guidelines titled “Guidelines for research involving Aboriginal communities in Newfoundland and Labrador” on behalf of the Labrador Aboriginal Health Research Committee and the HREB. These guidelines are used to assist researchers with the process of engaging in research with Aboriginal communities in the province.

Dr. Daryl Pullman is a professor of medical ethics at Memorial University and one of Dr. Brunger’s colleagues. He believes she is a deserving recipient of the Marilyn Harvey Award. “Fern is a unique member of our health ethics team in that while the rest of us came to bioethics via philosophy, Fern came via medical anthropology. Her perspective as a social scientist complements the work of the philosopher ethicists in our group nicely,” said Dr. Pullman. “Fern has played a key role in mobilizing the Health Research Ethics Authority that provides ethics oversight for all human health research in the province.”

Through her appointment as Senior Chair to the HREB, Dr. Brunger has helped shape the research ethics review process at a local and provincial level. Not only does she hold a leadership role as Chair of the review board; she also holds office hours at the provincial research ethics office and is involved with policy level decisions and education initiatives. In the past year, Dr. Brunger recorded a webinar on research ethics as an ongoing resource for new and continuing HREB members.

In her role as Senior Chair, Dr. Brunger works to ensure that all health research involving human subjects within the province is conducted in an ethical manner. She also strives to enhance public awareness of the ethical dimension of health research. Sandra Veenstra, ethics director with the HREA said: “Fern has had an outstanding commitment to enhancing the protection of human research participants and improving the effectiveness and efficiency of the processes of ethics review of human research.”

Ms. Veenstra continued on to say: “Fern strives to utilize every available platform in her efforts to raise awareness about research ethics and no matter what ‘hat’ she is wearing Fern is always acting as an advocate and leader in this area. Because of her efforts, she has earned the respect and gratitude of those around her.”

So what’s next for Dr. Brunger?

“My time as Chair of the HREB is coming to an end this summer and in stepping back I’d like to do some reflection on the process of implementing this unique provincial legislation that we have,” she notes. “There are some incredibly important stories to be told by the key players involved in the legislation and in the transition to the HREB and I think it makes sense for me to take a leadership role in developing a grant to examine the process.”

Dr. Brunger’s recent accolade was named in honour of Marilyn Harvey, a research nurse who brought forward her concerns regarding research ethics to senior administrators at the University.

Memorial established this award to shine a light on those members of its research community who exhibit leadership. Dr. Brunger was thrilled to be recognized in this way, “It’s always gratifying and humbling to have such an explicit expression of support by colleagues and students. I’m lucky to be surrounded by wonderful people who care and take the time to do this kind of public acknowledgement.” ■

This story was written by Robyn Pike, a communications specialist with Eastern Health.

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