February 28 marked the first day of the PRIM&R tenure of Sangeeta Panicker, PhD (also known as Sangy), the organization's first Director of Public Policy. Outgoing Policy Manager Tim Badmington chatted with Sangy over Zoom about the challenges in research ethics that she finds invigorating and her priorities in the new role.
Can you tell Ampersand readers a bit about your background?
I have a background in cognitive neuroscience, as well as psychopharmacology. I started my graduate work in the rat lab, got deathly allergic to rodents, and then transitioned to research with human participants. And while I was in graduate school, amid collecting data for my dissertation, I was fortunate to land a position at the American Psychological Association (APA) as research ethics officer. When I joined, my main responsibility was to staff the committee on animal research and ethics and to monitor what's going on in the research regulatory sphere, in general. But I know myself well enough that I need to have a lot to do to stay out of trouble. This happened to be a time when there was a lot of turmoil in the research regulatory world. This is turn of the century, when there were lots of labs getting shut down, so there was a lot going on and that got me really interested in this space.
I pretty much learned everything that I know about research ethics and research regulation on the job, because typically, in grad school, you dealt with the IRB or the IACUC through your graduate advisor, and it was always conveyed as being a royal pain that just needs to be dealt with. Even research methods classes didn't really cover ethics. So, when I started the job, I started from scratch—learning about the ethical framework, ensuing, regulations, the process of how regulations come to be and the relationship between legislation and regulation, all that. And so, I did that for a couple of decades at APA, and really, really enjoyed it. And I still do, but I just have a new playground now.
What challenges excite you about research ethics right now?
I just find research ethics endlessly fascinating because it is so dynamic and very often there is no answer—you just must find the best way to address an issue or an ethical dilemma, given what is known at that point in time. What is right today could well be wrong tomorrow, and then you have to start either anew or redo your answers or qualify them or something else. I also find it fascinating because it's not one field or one topic-
[At this point in the interview Sangy's dogs Sotto (left) and Nucci (right) decided to contribute their thoughts...]
What's challenging is that there are scientific advances that will change the ethical dimensions of research. There are changes in society, how people think about science, or how people are engaged or not engaged in science, that can also change what we consider ethical or unethical. There are all these different moving parts, which is also so fascinating.
One of the challenges is that science is outpacing the regulations. There are scientific advances happening at such a clip. Because of these changes, people's perceptions of ethics are evolving. And, especially in the human world, we're still stuck in a regulatory framework from 50-some years ago. I hope going forward that we come up with some kind of oversight structure that is a lot more nimble than what we have now. One that makes it easier to adapt and still do the right thing.
Can you give me like an example of an emergent technology that the regulatory landscape doesn't have the ability to tackle appropriately?
Digital technologies are a great example, because it is just so ubiquitous. From the time we open our eyes when the phone alarm goes off, and then you're scrolling, and then you're doomscrolling! It's just such a part of your life.
And you can use this technology—pervasive sensing mobile applications and devices—to monitor your heart rate, or your blood pressure, or your diabetes. So it is a part of our health care, our entertainment, shopping, other everyday life activities. So just going about our everyday life we are generating tons of data that can be used for research. And we're still using the framework developed for when you went to the lab to participate in a study, or you went to the clinic, and you gave blood or you took a behavioral or cognitive test, to this where data are being collected from you all the time. We're still using that old framework.
So has the ubiquity of digital technologies altered the core concepts of research ethics? Consider respect for persons, which we often translate to informed consent. It feels like 16 times a day, you have updates on one or more of your devices and you agree to the end user license agreement, which is almost always in the tiniest possible font. You agree without reading or even thinking about it. But when we go to do research, we say, "No, no, let me give you this form." But not just the consent form, we explain to you ad nauseum what's going to happen.
Would it be more respectful of the participants' time, if you just said, "Hey, I'm studying attention. And this is what I'm going to study, period, the end, I'll have all this data. And I'm only gonna play with one part of the data and there's a lot more there that other people might want to study. But I don't know who they are or when they might look at it. But are you interested?" Make it clear that this way, you're not participating in just one study but that you are contributing to science—period. But that's not how we do it. I am presenting this in a bit of a facetious way, but it sometimes feels to me like the ethical framework needs to evolve with evolving societal norms and expectations.
Another way to look at it is we have all these structures in place—the infrastructure, the oversight mechanisms—but they apply to research and typically to academic research. But there is little, if any, oversight of research conducted by industry, like social media and technology companies. Also, when you're getting trained in biomedical, behavioral, and social sciences, especially now, there's so much focus on research integrity, and responsible conduct of research—not just regulatory compliance, but the ethics of research. But now you have folks in other fields like information sciences, computer sciences, who often unbeknownst to them are actually conducting research with human participants. But they often don't realize that, they think they're just operating in code. But there's a person at the other end who provided the data. So I think research ethics education needs to be expanded to these other disciplines as well.
So what are your high-priority, immediate goals now that you're at PRIM&R?
So I came from a ginormous organization, but my sandbox was tiny. I dealt with research ethics, but almost exclusively in the behavioral, cognitive, and psychological sciences. So now I'm in a smaller organization with a much larger playground!. So I'm just going to wander around for a bit and check out what's going on, look, listen, and learn.
There's a whole lot I need to learn. For instance, I never dealt with FDA issues, because they were never relevant to my space, but now I'm going to actually have to study up on FDA regulations. And genomics! I've always been fascinated by it, but never had the time, and I didn't have people around me who could mentor me on it. So there's a lot of learning that I'm going to have to do. I am going to take it slow and easy, and pick up whatever is ongoing at PRIM&R right now and contribute where I can. And then, and once I have a better sense of the Public Policy Committee and about PRIM&R's priorities, I'll see how they mesh with my priorities and abilities.
So what do you like to do for fun?
Oh my god, I love to eat. I'm a foodie, and I'm also a wordie. I love word games. Crosswords, Wordle, Scrabble, Quiddler. Any kind of Word game!
[Interviewer becomes very excited to hear for the first time about someone else who plays Quiddler.]
What's your favorite cuisine? And tell me about one of your most memorable meals.
As far as food is concerned, as long as it is spicy I don't discriminate against any cuisine! My most memorable meal is every single one I've had at Obelisk in Dupont Circle, DC.
I really like your interview!!!! Go Sangy!!!!