International guidelines and many nations' laws mandate that research with humans requires prior approval from a research ethics committee (called an institutional review board or IRB in the US). A new study in PLoS Medicine examined how well these research ethics committees are functioning in Africa.
In the study, by Nancy Kass, Adnan Ali Hyder (both at Johns Hopkins School of Public Health and Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics) and their colleagues in ten African countries, researchers reported experiences of 12 different research ethics committees (RECs) from nine African countries.
The committee members said that they faced a number of challenges, including inadequate funding, staffing, and training. Many said their committees lacked expertise in considering the ethical aspects of the proposed research, which led to greater focus on scientific aspects and budget. Some research ethics committees felt that it was hard to give a truly independent assessment of the proposed research, because approving the research would lead to greater funding going to their own institution.
Respondents also mentioned several strengths of their committees. For example, many RECs have been formed recently, reflecting that ethics review increasingly is becoming the norm in Africa; further, the longer a committee has existed, the more likely it is to pay close attention to ethics and to have predictable funding.
Kass and colleagues say: "We hope that this study will help researchers in Africa better understand the landcsape of ethics review and help funders target resources for capacity development in a continent where health research is so critical to development, and local responsibility for research functions is critical for research."