Ethics is About What’s Possible: An Interview With Elizabeth Buchanan

In January, PRIM&R welcomed three new members to its Board of Directors, including Elizabeth A. Buchanan, PhD.

Elizabeth Buchanan is the endowed chair in ethics and director of the Center for Applied Ethics at the University of Wisconsin (UW)-Stout. She serves as leadership director and vice-chair of the UW Stout’s institutional review board (IRB), and is also on the faculty at the Upper Austria University of Applied Science, where she developed and teaches a course on information and communication technology ethics. Dr. Buchanan’s scholarship focuses on ethical issues and challenges in internet and social media research, emerging research methodologies, and professional ethics. She is a frequent speaker and consultant on these areas throughout the US and internationally. Dr. Buchanan’s full biography can be found here.

PRIM&R recently had the opportunity to speak with Dr. Buchanan about her experiences in the field as well as her involvement with PRIM&R.

PRIM&R: When and why did you join the field?
Elizabeth Buchanan (EB): In some ways, I fell into the research regulation world without really planning for it. When I wrote my dissertation, way back in 1998, few people were doing online ethnography or using online research methods. When I submitted to the IRB, indicating I was doing all online interviewing and observation, no one was quite sure what to make of it. I was studying the pedagogy and communication patterns of an online bioethics class, so I was observing participants engage in discussions and activities around research ethics principles. In 1999, the seminal report from the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), Ethical and Legal Aspects of Human Subjects Research in Cyberspace, came out and I felt like I had found a place for my scholarship. I started serving on two IRBs, continued to conduct research on the ways in which IRBs were managing this emerging field of Internet research, and now, many years later, here I am.

PRIM&R: What other programs or research initiatives are you involved with outside of your work?
EB: In addition to my work in research ethics, I am a researcher in the field of information and computer ethics. Currently, I am a principal investigator on a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant studying the ethical implications of humanitarian service learning programs, specifically, Engineers without Borders. Prior to that, in another NSF funded-project, I looked at ethics curriculum in computer science and information communication technologies. The connections here enable me to stay on top of emerging and novel technologies as they impact human subjects research. Also, I am personally and professionally committed to human rights and freedoms. I try to contribute at many levels; for example, I am so fortunate to have the opportunity to serve on the AAAS Committee on Scientific Freedom and Responsibility. But closer to home, I am on the board of directors of our local free health clinic, and help patients get access to health care and other basic needs and services.

PRIM&R: What motivates you to maintain your commitment to advancing ethical research?
EB: To me, ethics is about what’s possible, what’s right and just. We all—researchers, participants, research ethics officers—want the best possible outcomes and usually, by following an ethical path, we get to that outcome. I remember talking with an IRB once, and they simply could not resolve an issue with an investigator, and it turned out, the methods were really out of sync. When we re-evaluated the methodological piece from a slightly different disciplinary perspective, we resolved the ethical issues. This is the sort of thing that really motivates me. Collaboration and interdisciplinary thinking enables ethical research, and getting researchers or practitioners from disparate groups together goes a long way to that end. We learn so much about ethics and norms when we step outside of our comfort zone, and we’re truly pushed to learn more and to prioritize and advance ethics and ethical research.

PRIM&R: Tell us about one or more articles, books, or documents that have influenced your professional life.
EB: I mentioned the AAAS report on human subjects research in cyberspace, and that document really grabbed me. It helped me frame my research agenda and I still look to it today. Then, there is The Winter of Our Disconnect. What a fun book that details the experiences of a family going “off-grid” for six months. It described the ways in which personal connections were re-established when we disconnect from our devices for a while. When I suggested this in our house, let’s just say the response wasn’t very well received.

PRIM&R: Have there been any PRIM&R events or talks that you have attended that have significantly impacted your approach to your work? If so, what were they and how did they influence you?
EB: There was a dialogue between Latanya Sweeney and Joseph Konstan at the 2011 Social, Behavioral, and Educational Research (SBER) Conference that was fantastic. Listening to two computer scientists who truly entered the human subjects field somewhat unwittingly was amazing, as they really brought great perspectives. And, of course, I was mesmerized by Atul Gawande’s keynote from the 2013 Advancing Ethical Research Conference. He is by far one of the best speakers around, and I hung on his every word!

[Editor’s note: both sessions noted above are available free to PRIM&R members on our Knowledge Center; non-members can purchase the proceedings from these meetings to access the noted sessions and other materials from those events here.]

PRIM&R: What is one thing you wish the general public knew about human subjects/animal research?
EB: I would like the general public to know how research makes their lives better and that societal support of research—basic, biomedical, and social-behavioral—is critical. Without getting too political, those that staunchly oppose animal research, or embryonic stem cell research, should consider the progress that’s been made because of these. And, as researchers, it is really up to us to educate our families, friends, and neighbors about research, as it is often clouded in mystery.

PRIM&R: What challenges do you see ahead for medical research in general? Any ethical challenges in particular?
EB: I feel two of the biggest challenges facing not just biomedical research but SBER, come with the blurring of disciplines, fields, and boundaries; and secondly, with the intense speed with which our technologies and practices are changing. Look at the fields of nanotechnology, or neuroscience, for example. Think about them ten years ago. Or, big data. We had barely heard of this concept ten years ago, and now, the average person encounters all of these on a daily basis. Just a few of the ethical issues raised, whether by nanotech, neuroscience, or big data, involve privacy rights, the balance between personal liberties with societal advancements, and around access and control. That is, the right of access to information, to data, to education, to health, to research, balanced with an individual’s right of control; we should have the right to opt out of pervasive data collection, for example. So, as personalized medicine moves forward, as precision technologies grow ever more sophisticated, we will continually see more ethical tensions testing fundamental principles.

PRIM&R: What advice do you have for people interested in pursuing a career in research, research ethics, and/or a related field?
EB: Get involved in PRIM&R as early as possible! It is so important to network, and establish contacts in the field. There are many resources and support mechanisms that no one needs to feel isolated or feel that a situation is impossible. I have colleagues at institutions where they are a one-person shop, or the IRB chair doesn’t have much support, and it is essential to reach out. We’re really all in this together.

PRIM&R: What advice have you found most helpful in your career?
EB: Don’t say yes too quickly! It is very easy to make quick and convenient decisions. But, taking time to truly think through, weigh options, and consult colleagues, friends, and family members is critical to making the right decisions. I try and use the “grandmother test”: don’t do anything that you would be embarrassed to share with your grandmom.

PRIM&R: Why did you agree to serve on PRIM&R’s Board of Directors?
EB: I have been so lucky to be involved with PRIM&R in different capacities for nearly ten years now. I have been a conference presenter, webinar instructor,  member of the conference planning committee, co-chair of the recent SBER conference, and now the board. I agreed to this for a few reasons. First of all, the people on the board and the PRIM&R staff are committed to the highest principles of research ethics and integrity. I want to be a part of that community, that dedication to improving research and contributing to the growth of research ethics. Second, they are some of the smartest, funniest, and down to earth people I have ever met, and I am humbled in their presence. Finally, what an amazing opportunity to work with the research community and help steer priorities and directions at this incredible time.

Thank you for sharing your story, Elizabeth. We are so thankful for all of your contributions to PRIM&R and to the field.

The complete 2016 Board of Directors roster is available on our website.