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Sunday, May 22, 2011

On the Banning of Research Questions

At a session of the annual conference of the Canadian Political Science Association, May 17, I was privileged to observe a vital debate. Former friend and colleague Dr. Frances Widdowson was speaking to a round-table she'd organized. The topic was Ethics Review Boards and their criteria for approving university research. In her brief remarks, Frances worried the issues of academic freedom, scholarly access, and integrity in research that involved Aboriginal communities.
    Ethics Review Boards (ERBs) are bodies within each teaching institution that must give their approval to scholars before any research in the institution takes place. Local ERBs are governed by a national body known as the National Council on Ethics in Human Research (NCEHR). The latter operates through a committee known as the Tri-Council Policy Statement, which develops guidelines for approving research in three main areas: social sciences; health science; and natural sciences and engineering.
   Titled “Aboriginal Research Ethics,” the round-table was chaired by Kathy Brock, an influential member of the Tri-Council. Other notables included Rhoda Howard-Hassman of Wilfred Laurier, Tom Flanagan of the University of Calgary, and David Newhouse of Trent University.
    In the past, the role of ethics review had been to ensure that human subjects of medical research did not suffer “harm” from the research. For example, no subject could be given an experimental drug without their explicit knowledge and consent. However, in recent years, the ERBs have expanded their mandates to include every area of scholarly concern. In some disciplines, this was a natural expansion, as for example, in the testing of materials and products destined for human use. But in other areas, this has become invasive, political, and controversial. Scholarly disciplines now speak openly of the problem of mandate creep in ERBs.
       This goes well beyond the traditional areas of ethical supervision. I was recently informed by a student of Sports Management that review boards made it difficult for him to draw up a survey to be done by members of a university team. As an example, they looked unkindly on asking athletes questions -- how they felt about their sport and how they were recruited -- without going through the coach!
     In the disciplines of the social sciences (what is a society and how does it function?) the issue of ethics review is fraught. Where scholars used to say, “Let’s look into it and draw the logical conclusions,” Ethics Review has become a giant filter that tends to halt research it considers “not beneficial” to the “welfare” of subjects; or, that pre-screens for potentially controversial enquiries, and makes it almost impossible to conduct them. Predictably, this has been driven by politics – mostly, identity politics that claim to protect certain groups from the prying eyes of the outsider (or, in the case of Aboriginals, the Native researcher not connected to the Band Council).
     The problem, too, lies in the research question. In olden times, researchers simply went looking for phenomena, come what may. They often used what was called the null hypothesis. The null hypothesis states that, by default, there is no relationship between two phenomena being measured. So, for example, there is no relationship between educational outcomes for Native youth and current schooling practices controlled by Reserves. If the research result is "false," then a relationship has been identified, and that can be the subject of later research.
   Whether or not a null hypothesis is used, the idea of "what this proves" now looms as a hurdle in the application/approval process controlled by local Ethics Boards. Boards will ask whether there are any predictable, positive outcomes from this research and what in the results impacts the “welfare of the community”; this can be important in granting of permission. 

   Dr. Widdowson, with her partner, Albert Howard, authored the 2008 book Disrobing the Aboriginal Industry, in which, using a Marxist approach, they developed a critique of current Aboriginal leaderships and of so-called Aboriginal Knowledge. Aboriginal Knowledge is the theory, promoted by Aboriginal leaders and academics, that tribal myth is a substitute for what we commonly call science, notwithstanding that it is both oral and unproved by evidence. The book raised a lively debate that went much farther than chatter: Dr. Widdowson was the target of threats and attempts were made to ostracise her, and even to ban her from scholarship. At one point, a charge of Racism was lodged by her opponents at a university Human Rights council, with a view to having her prosecuted.
   This 2011 round-table, then, was a remarkable achievement in which Dr. Widdowson was able to get her ideological enemies to sit down before an informed, academic public and trade views and debate ideas. I conclude that she’s made progress in restoring academic freedom to her area – but, as we’ll see, a lot more needs to be done.
   One defining moment on the panel was when David Newhouse aired his thoughts on "Aboriginal Sovereignty." In decades past, he’d been a young academic at a Reserve school, teaching social sciences to youth. One day, he'd explained what national sovereignty meant in World Politics. But a student then had asked him how “the Queen got it over us.” Newhouse claimed to have had a revelation; national sovereignty was a concept coming out of the nation-state, and Natives had never had one. Therefore, he concluded, “sovereignty” could not be applied to Natives in the same way as to Whites.
     Newhouse did not focus on the fact that other groups in history had never gone through the “nation-state” phase; that modern countries were a convenience to citizens that collected people from all over the globe; and that the phrase “First Nations,” in referencing any sort of “nation,” was a political invention that did not exist when the Canadian nation-state was founded. But we in the audience had to wonder where Dr. Newhouse’s remarks on “special” sovereignty were leading.
    It quickly became clear: Native sovereignty meant that the band councils could prevent research into whatever band phenomena the councils felt was private to the band – even where the investigator was a Native him- or herself. He gave a specific example: you could not enquire into “sacred practices” in the sweat lodge, even where band members—my example— complained that such practices were illegal, coercive, or corrupt.
    This ban on enquiry meant that the Ethics Review Board got to scratch out any “inappropriate questions.” In reply, Frances Widdowson and others protested: "Why not simply tell them they don't have to answer?" But Dr. Newhouse was firm: Ethics Review tells you what you cannot ask these “sovereign” people. Here the unstated theme was how much sexual and financial abuse was being shielded by what the ERBs politely call “formal governances” (band councils) and by local intimidators.
    In a vigorous response, Rhoda Howard-Hassman related how African dictators had deployed similar notions of “sovereignty” to shield horrific crimes. They’d prevented UN researchers from enquiring into systematic rape of women in their countries, all in the name of African cultural sovereignty. How was this any different? (I thought, too, of South-Asian academics who have blocked studies of forced marriage and bride-burning in India). But Dr. Newhouse did not budge. Then, he made a remarkable confession: the only thing separating him from traditional research methods was "politics; my stance is frankly political."  It was an extraordinary opening into the evident politicization of today’s academic life.*
    In the ensuing discussion, few in the room argued that the common-sense injunctions "Be sensitive" or "Be aware of the history of colonization" were sufficient for alert researchers, who could frame their research without sounding colonial or compromising ethnic pride. And yet, the right "not to answer" could be accommodated by Consent interviews, and even further explored in other research.

   One younger participant on the panel was a PhD candidate in Aboriginal Studies. He argued pragmatically that “this is the system”:  REBs would not approve Aboriginal projects unless the results of the research could be argued to be "positive or beneficial" to the communities. In other words, you would not use the null hypothesis, or posit research that threw a negative light upon Aboriginal culture. He seemed not to want to contest this.
    I immediately thought of what I, a person educated between 1975 and 1985, would have been taught: “all verifiable knowledge is beneficial to humanity”; “all human enquiry is by definition constructive.” I also worried about what the Inquisition must have said to Galileo: “You must not suggest an idea that throws Church Authority into disrepute.” Were Natives exempted from that generalization? Once again, many academic heads in the room nodded Yes.
    I could not remain silent, so ventured a question: "How can research be bounded by the constraints of philosophical Instrumentalism? Who would decide what was beneficial and what was harmful?  How would we, for example, research diseases if their exploration became embarrassing to a community?" Heads immediately stopped wagging; did anyone in the room under 50 understand the word "instrumentalism"?
    To avoid longueurs and not to provoke, I did not mention that, in the 1980s, African- American leaders had shut down AIDS prevention programs in the ghettos because their existence stigmatised their communities as "prone to AIDS." I did not mention that Black-focused research into epidemiology of AIDS had also been curtailed (and that this community is still a locus for the disease today).
    What I did point out was that one discipline, Psychology, considered it detrimental to practice psychological avoidance, which seemed to be the strategy these scholars were proposing. That is, failing to ask difficult questions would be counted by Psychology as harmful to subjects of research or to psychological patients. But the young scholar did not budge, but said he based his remarks on "the criteria that the Review Boards have set.”
    The moderator of the panel, Dr. Brock, seemed to see my point and thanked me afterwards for asking my questions. But I took the opportunity to press another worry. I said, "The discussion does raise the issue of the commonality of human experience. Is every enquiry by an outside person by definition colonial? Is there such a thing as an ad-hominem research credential? To say this is to suggest a sort of separatism, that ethnic consciousness is immune to external groups [something the Nazis argued, but I did not add that]." In reply, Dr. Brock said that she supported the contentious hypothesis: Aboriginal experience was unique, and some of it was to be decoded only by Aboriginals and their governments; and Research Boards should adhere to that.

    In summary, the panel seemed to be a watershed. It offered candid exposure both of the power structure in ERBs and the politics and philosophy that drive them. Once again, Frances Widdowson is an academic hero. She has gone into a lions' den and had the denizens purr their hearts out without eating their prey alive.
*and, on May 18, the WLU student newspaper The Cord quoted Dr. Newhouse to the effect that, “if there’s no restraint [on academic freedom], it’s difficult to pursue a relationship that’s dedicated to peace.”

1 comment:

  1. The REBs now function as censors, in much the same way as our Human Rights Commissions. Out of control.