I was rather saddened last week by the comment from a Pakistani colleague who wanted to know how to set up an ethics committee in their research organization so they could be the first in that country to have one. It bears out my comments on the way in which these institutions are the product of hegemonic processes that are promoting what my friends in organization studies call ‘isomorphism’. What this says is that, in a competitive field, organizations are driven to model themselves on the most successful, whether or not the results are appropriate to the niche that they actually occupy.
So our colleague does not suggest that Pakistan has a particular problem with social research ethics, nor is it proposed that there has been some scandal that might justify this kind of intervention. The vision seems to have much more to do with achieving a first-mover advantage and getting international recognition. But then we can ask: “international recognition from whom?”
I have been working extensively over the last year with colleagues from France, Italy and Germany, none of which countries have adopted this kind of regulatory system, to figure out how best to protect the independence of their social science research and avoid the fate of, for example, colleagues in Ireland who have had such a system imposed with no apparent justification or explanation. The results are not progressive: important areas of ignorance emerge because it is too much trouble to clear the process or the findings might be troublesome for the institution; knowledge gaps are filled by less professional investigators or by ungrounded advocacy; students are unable to practise the skills we painfully teach them. Personally, I would have thought that Pakistan was a country in need of a free social science that can speak truth to powers of all kinds. Ethical regulation is more likely to be an obstacle than a support in that mission. Be careful what you wish for, Ayesha.