Local research ethics committees

BMJ 1995; 311 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.311.7006.639 (Published 09 September 1995) Cite this as: BMJ 1995;311:639

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  1. K G M M Alberti
  1. Professor of medicine Human Diabetes and Metabolism Research Centre, University of Newcastle, The Medical School, Newcastle upon Tyne NE2 4HH

    Time to grab several bulls by the horns

    Nowadays, it should be obvious to all participating in human research that ethical principles should be followed and that approval of a study by an ethics committee should always be sought. Despite the appalling lessons of the second world war this has not always been the case, and even now examples of unethical research are reported regularly, with researchers dazzled by the potential scientific rewards forgetting the moral and humane principles to which they should adhere. Ethics committees thus continue to be a vital safeguard, although their birth has been long and tortured and they continue to be criticised for their often idiosyncratic ways of operating.

    The main drive to the formation of ethics committees in Britain came from the World Medical Association's Declaration of Helsinki1 and the publication of Pappworth's The Human Guinea Pig.2 The British Medical Research Council reported in 1963 on the responsibility of researchers for the wellbeing of their subjects, and in 1967 the Royal College of Physicians recommended that all research should be subjected to ethical review.3 In 1968 the Department of Health recommended that hospitals should establish ethics review boards but on an informal basis. Guidelines on how they should function appeared from the royal college in 1984 and in 1989 from the Department of Health.4 But it was not until 1991 that the Department of Health formally required every health district to have a local research ethics committee and gave more detailed guidance on the composition of these committees and how they should function.5

    The 1991 document was welcome, although discerning why it took more than 20 years from the first loose guidance to reach that point is difficult. In the past four years it has become obvious that many problems remain.6 Alternative, or at the least …

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