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Research Ethics & Governance

A call for a national inquiry into the burden of research ethics and governance

Do we need a national inquiry into the burden of research ethics and governance in health and medical research Australia? Many Australian researchers would cry “yes!” because they have repeatedly experienced application systems that are time-consuming and illogical.

I have never met a researcher who did not think that ethics and research integrity wasn’t vitally important, but many current application systems have more to do with risk aversion than the safety of patients or the public.

This risk aversion means that millions of dollars’ worth of Australian researchers’ time is being wasted on submitting the same forms to multiple ethical review committees. For example, getting approvals for our group’s low-risk survey of nurses in 50 hospitals cost an estimated $348,000 in staff time and delayed the study by six months (Barnett et al 2016).

Another Australian study of 60 national hospitals spent an estimated $264,000 on approvals and the researchers’ experienced puzzling variations in submission requirements and decisions about the study’s level of risk (Clay-Williams et al 2018).

Another Australian study found that the time taken to complete the ethics and governance forms for a negligible risk study took eight times longer than the actual research (Rush et al 2018).

These are not isolated experiences and the current processes are driving researchers crazy. In our recent one-day meeting on improving research quality, we asked attendees to vote on the changes most needed to improve research and reduce research waste. The idea of a national inquiry into ethics and governance was voted fourth highest out of 21 policies (the full survey results are available here).

What should a national inquiry consider? The primary question should be: why can’t we have a national system? A national system that has standardised forms and is used by every state and territory health department. A national system that covers all types of research, not just clinical trials.

An inquiry into ethics processes could be part of the promised Chubb inquiry (if Labor wins the election) that will conduct a root-and-branch examination of Australia’s overall research framework and “ensure that Australia maintains its international competitive advantage”. Other countries use simpler approval processes and we hamper our ability to conduct research by tying up researchers in wasteful knots of unnecessary paperwork.

The inquiry should engage with the people doing the hard work of reviewing applications on ethics committees. These people should also welcome a streamlined system that cuts-out the requirement for them to review already reviewed applications, giving them more time to focus on important ethical considerations.

Researchers should also acknowledge that some delays and duplication are their own fault. A key problem is that ethics applications can be so badly written that committee members cannot judge the ethical implications of the study.

Australian researchers want a system that improves and facilities their research, not one that puts “virtually insurmountable and costly barriers in place” (Clay-Williams et al 2018). We want a “tailored and harmonised” system (Rush et al 2018).

Many researchers have been talking about the need for change for over a decade, but have seen only small improvements and plenty of backwards steps too. A national inquiry would cost time and money, but the potential long-term savings to researchers and the public from this important reform could be enormous.

By Adrian Barnett, Principal Research Fellow – Statistics


  • Rush, A., Ling, R., Carpenter, J. E., Carter, C., Searles, A., & Byrne, J. A. (2018). Research governance review of a negligible-risk research project: Too much of a good thing? Research Ethics, 14(3), 1–12. https://doi.org/10.1177/1747016117739937
  • Robyn Clay-Williams, Natalie Taylor and Jeffrey Braithwaite (2018) Potential solutions to improve the governance of multicentre health services research. Med J Aust; 208 (4): doi: 10.5694/mja16.01268
  • Adrian G. Barnett, Megan J. Campbell, Carla Shield, Alison Farrington, Lisa Hall, Katie Page, Anne Gardner, Brett G. Mitchell and Nicholas Graves (2016) The high costs of getting ethical and site-specific approvals for multi-centre research. Research Integrity and Peer Review 1:16 https://doi.org/10.1186/s41073-016-0023-6