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Past Interpretations of the TCPS

Subject Academic Freedom and the Role of the REB
Keywords academic freedom, role of REB, ethics review, accountability, independence
TCPS Articles 1.2
Date July 2003

PDF Academic_Freedom_and_the_Role_of_the_REB_July_2003.pdf

1. This is in response1 to your recent letter expressing concern about academic freedom and the structure and function of Research Ethics Boards (REBs) in a university setting.

2. The Tri-Council Policy Statement: Ethical Conduct for Research Involving Humans (TCPS) takes the position that along with academic freedom of inquiry come duties in the conduct of human research. One of those duties involves securing prospective ethics review of proposed research from duly constituted REBs. Your presumption that an REB should be independent of the Administration of the university is partly supported by the commentary to article 1.2 of the TCPS on the authority of the REB:

In defining the REB's mandate and authority, the institution must make clear the jurisdiction of the REB and its relationship to other relevant bodies or authorities. Institutions must ensure that REBs have the appropriate financial and administrative independence to fulfil their primary duties.

3. That administrative independence does not mean that REB decisions are immune from scrutiny or other influences that may determine the conduct of research in a university. Indeed, the commentary to article 1.2 (page 1.3) also indicates that while institutions cannot override negative REB decisions on grounds of ethics without a formal appeal process, they "may refuse to allow certain research within its jurisdiction, even though the REB has found it ethically acceptable."

4. Part of the reasoning behind this is the logic of accountability, which places the REB in the broader context of other significant affairs, beyond ethics, that properly fall within the discretion of the university. For instance, even with an optimally functioning REB within the university setting, there may arise the exceptional occasion when the institution must consider other relevant factors bearing on whether research will proceed, such as financing and environmental policies. As implied within the text of the TCPS, the balance between academic freedom and duties, REB ethical independence, and university accountability are important and deserving of continued reflection and vigilance.

We hope you find these thoughts helpful to your human research ethics initiatives.


Secretariat on Research Ethics
on behalf of
The Interagency Advisory Panel on Research Ethics

  1. PRE provides advice on such interpretation questions to assist the research ethics community in applying the TCPS to the ethical issues it faces. While responses to TCPS interpretation questions may address ethical dimensions of legal issues in research ethics, PRE does not provide legal advice. Nor does it act as an appeal body on REB or institutional decisions.