Brazilian social scientists call for ethics watchdog

child with her mother
Copyright: Giacomo Pirozzi/Panos

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  • An existing ethics commission oversees biomedical research in Brazil
  • The proposed new body would focus on the ethics of working with, not on humans
  • Its proposers want this committee to develop a specialist ethics code

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Social scientists in Brazil demand the creation of a new ethics committee to oversee the treatment of people studied by researchers.

The specialist watchdog would develop a code of ethics for social science involving human subjects, and would act as a go-to organisation for dealing with scientific misconduct, they suggest.

The proposals were published last month by a working group set up in 2013 by Brazil’s National Council for Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq) to examine options for governing ethics in social science. This council is overseen by the Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation.

“We want to create specific regulations for the areas of humanities, social and applied social sciences, where researchers work with but not on humans.”

Carmen Rial

Carmen Rial, a former president of the Brazilian Anthropology Association, who coordinated the working group, says the science ministry should supervise the ethics committee.

Rial acknowledges that Brazil already has a National Commission on Research Ethics (CONEP), which was created in 1996 and is responsible for examining the ethical aspects of research involving human subjects. But, she says, this committee does not cater to social scientists’ specific needs.

The existing ethics body, CONEP, is part of Brazil’s Ministry of Health, and regulates clinical trials and other biomedical research. While social scientists and humanities researchers agree with the organisation’s general ethical approach, they feel the procedures and criteria established for biomedical research do not match the needs of their field.

Ethics in social sience cannot be guided by the same rules as applied to research in the life sciences or physical sciences, Rial says. “We want to create specific regulations for the areas of humanities, social and applied social sciences, where researchers work with but not on humans,” she tells SciDev.Net.

The proposal now rests with the CNPq’s leadership, but so far no response has been published.

The working group’s proposal follows a general move by social scientists and humanities researchers in Brazil to gain more government recognition. The group hopes that if social science gets its own ethics committee, the field’s researchers would gain more autonomy to deal with the particular challenges social scientists face when doing their work, such as obtaining consent, unobtrusive observation and avoiding influencing study subjects when researching out in the field.

As part of the proposal, the new ethics committee would move from the health ministry to the science one. “The transfer is a necessary and urgent thing,” says Ricardo Musse, a sociologist at the University of Sao Paulo.

Musse says the committee could help social scientists develop research policy proposals beyond ethical standards, including on education, financing, publication and international collaboration. He says these points have been neglected so far, and that the CNPq’s working group is trying to fill this gap.


CNPq working group Política de ciência, tecnologia e inovação para as áreas ciências humanas, sociais e sociais aplicadas (Brazilian Anthropology Association, 10 May 2015) [in Portuguese]