Katerini Storeng & Jennifer Palmer: When ethics and politics collide in donor-funded global health research
In The Lancet - Viewpoint, 2019.
Katerini Storeng & Jennifer Palmer
In this Viewpoint, we share our experience of censorship in evaluation research for global health. Our experience shows a broader trend of donors and implementing partners who deliberately use ethical and methodological arguments to undermine essential research. In a context of chronic underfunding of universities and their growing dependence on donordriven research grants, we pro pose several structural and cultural changes to prevent manipulation of research governance systems and to safeguard the independence of research.
Censorship is a strong word. But what else can you call it when a donor that commissions a researchbased evaluation of one of its major global health programmes instructs the researchers to omit important results from their final report? Or puts pressure on them to change the tenor of their conclusions? Or when a staff member of an implementing partner that is being evaluated threatens the reputation of the researchers and their university if they publish negative findings?
Such interference in any research process is antithetical to independence. Agencies commissioning evaluation research, which tends to have an immediate and practical use for decision makers, often engage public health universities to study their programmes. They rely not only on universities’ methodological and subject area expertise, but also on their strong systems of research ethics and governance, recognising that compliance with such systems is essential for ensuring that the evidence produced adheres to the “highest standards of integrity”. However, current systems primarily protect vulnerable research subjects from powerful researchers and are ill equipped to deal with challenges when researchers are less powerful than the research subjects.