New book asks ethical questions about human subjects research

CHAPEL HILL -- For years, conscientious scientists conducting all kinds of research involving human subjects -- from anthropology to public health to clinical medicine -- have bumped up against deep ethical questions about the people they study, says a University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill faculty expert.

"Time and time again, researchers are confronted by questions that are not addressed by the rules and regulations that govern research," says Nancy M.P. King, professor of social medicine at the UNC-CH School of Medicine. "These questions arise because research involves relationships -- sometimes long-term relationships -- with the individuals and communities who serve as subjects. Researchers must think about questions like, 'Who sets the focus and the design of the research?' ' Who represents a specific group or community?' and 'Who speaks for them?'"

Those questions and others related to a new way of ethical reasoning regarding human subjects were the focus of a 1995 conference at UNC-CH, "From 'Regs' to Relationships: Re-examining Research Ethics," organized by King, Dr. Gail Henderson, also professor of social medicine, and Dr. Jane Stein, a public health adjunct faculty member.

The five case studies presented during that conference, along with new case material and essays on research ethics, are featured in the first volume of a new University of North Carolina Press series, "Studies in Social Medicine." Edited by the three women, "Beyond Regulations: Ethics in Human Subjects Research" examines new ways to perceive and address moral problems in all human subjects research.

Initially, the conference goal was to address ethical problems that arise when scientists try to apply federal regulations governing human studies in cross-national, cross-cultural settings. But it soon became clear that the focus should be much broader, King says.

"Challenges to traditional moral principles have been sounded across a broad sweep of academic

Contact: David Williamson
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

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