Two Senate committees have recommended that Stellenbosch University (SU) formally adopts the Global Code of Conduct for Research in Resource-Poor Settings (www.globalcodeofconduct.org) at its next Senate meeting in November 2019.
The Research Ethics Committee of Senate made this recommendation at its scheduled meeting last week (Friday 30 August 2019) after the Research Committee of Senate earlier adopted a similar recommendation at its meeting on 14 August 2019.
The Global Code of Conduct for Research in Resource-Poor Settings was adopted as a reference document for the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme in 2018.
The Stellenbosch University Senate first discussed the impact of the research article, Age- and education-related effects on cognitive functioning in Coloured South African women at its scheduled meeting on 31 May 2019 after SU came under the spotlight when the article was published in an international scientific journal, Aging, Neuropsychology, and Cognition. The editors and publishers of the journal in consultation with the authors afterward retracted this article – a step strongly supported by SU.
Stellenbosch University acknowledged in a statement that the particular article caused offense and injured the human dignity of many South Africans, and apologised unconditionally for the severe trauma, pain, and anger among members of the general public, Stellenbosch communities, University stakeholders and its campus community.
Since May, Senate and its sub-committees have thrown their weight behind a focused and concerted long-term institutional response to the issues brought to the fore by the article and related responses, for example, interventions on SU campuses to address relevant themes like the role of race in scientific research and the transformation of the institutional culture of SU.
In a motion that was passed unanimously at the Senate meeting in May specific university structures were tasked with attending to certain concrete proposals. The following two matters were referred to the Academic Planning Committee (APC) of Senate:
- That “consideration be given to offering a module on anti-racism, democracy and critical citizenship to all first-year students”.
- That academic department such as Gender and Critical Race Studies be institutionalised at SU.
The APC decided on a survey to determine which of these kinds of activities were already performed at SU.
Other proposals by Senate included:
- That “consideration be given to instituting a campus-wide mechanism dedicated to transforming research and science” at SU.
- That “a suite of short courses is offered by the Research Office for all staff members” at SU on topics such as “the use of human categories in research and science”. Research integrity is already covered in existing short courses, but the possibility of prescribed training in research ethics is being considered. In the meantime, existing training initiatives would be expanded with a view to raising greater awareness.
In addition, the Research Committee of Senate made further recommendations at its meeting in August:
- That a process should be created for all SU social impact projects go through an ethics review.
- That compulsory training should be provided to members of the research ethics committees, staff and students, which should include awareness-raising initiatives around ethics code of conduct and SU policies and processes.
- That the institutional awareness of the risks of unethical behaviour in research should be raised via focused online training programmes and initiatives.
Running concurrently with these institutional initiatives is a comprehensive investigation into all aspects of the published article and processes guided by the SU Policy for Responsible Research Conduct, as well as the SU procedure for the investigation of allegations of breach of research norms and standards. After an initial investigation, SU’s Research Integrity Officer requested Prof Eugene Cloete, Vice-Rector: Research, Innovation and Postgraduate Studies to appoint a Formal Investigation Committee to investigate specific allegations and processes.
This investigation is expected to be completed by the end of September 2019 and the outcome will be shared once all the processes have been concluded.
GLOBAL RESEARCH STANDARDS
“Although a single piece of research can in no way reflect the quality, ethics and values of SU’s stellar research programme, the incident has sparked serious discussions on our campuses about how individuals and communities are treated in research about them – not only at SU, but at all South African universities, and for some time already in academia globally,” says Prof Cloete.
“The improvement of global research standards has been on the international research agenda for more than a decade. African communities have in fact played a significant role in highlighting the exploitation of vulnerable communities, which contributed to the compilation of the Global Code of Conduct for Research in Research-poor Settings. In 2018 it was announced at a European Parliament workshop that the TRUST* Global Code of Conduct for Research in Resource-Poor Settings would become a reference document for the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme. Support for SU adopting the Code has been expressed in Senate committees and various other structures, and it will be tabled for formal adoption at the next Senate meeting in November 2019,” Prof Cloete added.
Launched in 2018, Prof Doris Schroeder, the Lead Author described the TRUST* Code of Conduct as “the very exciting high-point of 14 years of engagement on ethics dumping. In 2004, leaders of the San community in South Africa first explained to me how they felt exploited by researchers. Representatives of sex workers in Nairobi told me about their challenges in 2007.”
Two of the San leaders of the Kalahari that contributed to this initiative – Mr Andries Steenkamp and Mr Mario Mahongo who unfortunately passed away before the launch of the Code.