Ethics Review College, Bath Spa University

The University has an Internal Ethics Review College, made up of representatives from across each of the academic Schools, who are trained in mentoring and supporting staff and students in applications for ethical approval for projects and research. There are clear processes and procedures for staff and students to follow, that cover the range of our activities from traditional research to working with children in schools, creative practice and co-collaborative community work. 

  1. Please provide a brief description of the KE project/ case study and why you believe it is considered good practice or innovative (and for whom). What challenge were you trying to address?

We restructured how our Ethics Peer Review College worked so that each of our academic departments had their own ethics review systems and reported upwards. We realized though that we were lacking the cross disciplinary support and we were missing opportunities to make linkages across departments and share good practice.

We wanted to make our approach to ethics consistent across the university and allow that cross curricular thinking. Each of our academic schools has a designated ethics team of reviewers within their units to independently review applications and this allows them to have those initial conversations up front informally. Each of the ethics leads sits on our institutional wide Ethics panel and they come up with a series of themes to drive our activity collectively. They also do a lot of cross school reviews- so if a school is doing an educational review, they can get a psychologists take on it, for example.

Initial ownership at the departmental level has really enhanced the culture to allow departments to informally assess applications before it goes formally to our ethics panel. It also allows us to take a lighter approach for very small scale projects so we can manage and identify risks appropriately.

2. Where did the idea for the project/ programme come from? Was this related to a strategic objective? How did you secure senior buy in?

We’re signatories to the UUK Concordat for Research Integrity and Ethics. We were achieving our requirements against that, but more in a slightly heavy-handed way. Our academics felt that the process was slow and bureaucratic and it was holding them up. That’s a private sector/ public sector difference. It was really important for our partners to see things happening quickly. We aligned our ethics process with what we did for research to really try to build in some of those academic concerns- consent, data protection etc. So it meant we could iron things out up front and it sped up the ethical approval process. It meant we could maintain the strength and rigour of our research culture but still be more outward facing with our business partnerships.

When we had the liaison about restructuring, those conversations were leading this. We also wanted to make it less formal to speak to externals about ethical approvals etc. so our academics could signpost to our partners in a way that is proportionate. Our approach helps our partners to see the benefits beyond just paperwork and box ticking. And for our academics, they realise the benefits can make their projects stronger, allowing them to get what they need out of it.

3. What impact/ outcome has this project/ activity had on your university? Students? Local economy? Staff? Other external parties, e.g. businesses.

Since 2019, when it was established, our approach has increased our university’s collaborations. We’ve reduced the bureaucracy and there are now informal routes into the university with the right kinds of dialogue at the right levels. It’s enhanced our ability to do those kinds of projects more quickly. Before, things were getting delayed and now that we have those support structures we’ve been able to minimise the bureaucracy. That’s seeping into our academic culture and making these partnerships stronger and more workable.

4. How did you measure impact?

We’re still early in the stages of this. In the first year or two, we developed our narrative slightly. Now, we measure it through our HEBCI data and the strength of our KEF narratives. The first obvious sign is quantity. There are a lot more partnerships, and the type of collaborative applications we’re seeing has increased – suggesting we’ve reduced the levels of bureaucracy.

One our measures is to do an annual compliance statement so we’re now seeing more ethics applications coming in. We’re also seeing more collaborations with ethics applications, and more willingness for academics to have informal conversations about ethics –  so we’ve seen that as a positive.

5. What types of resources were required to implement this project?

In 2019, we set clear parameters for workload commitments for ethics leads alongside commitments from faculty leads and ringfenced time in their workload for ethical review. It wasn’t a huge amount and probably doesn’t reach the full amount of time they spend on it but we did need to recognise that this is important and does take time.

In terms of administrative resource, it’s just two people, one part time and one full time who looks after post award functions and contracting and serves as secretary for the university ethics panel to coordinate the process and steer the agenda.

Given we’re a small institution, having a named person recognised for their role in each department has been really key and we are also looking to invest in an online ethics system to help us manage this- thanks to our QR uplifts from REF – to help us facilitate the bureaucratic side of things and focus more on nurturing those important informal conversations and enhancing our suite of guidance.

6. How did you ensure your project aligned with further key ethical/ inclusion policies?

We have built in ethical principles to the business engagement team and their contracts and then we deal by exception with any particular issues. 

7. What are the governance structures in place to oversee it?

Each departmental Ethics Panel handles day to day applications and makes recommendations to the University Ethics Panel. The University Ethic’s Panel is a sub committee of the research committee that reports to our executive level. We have an external who sits on both of those, (usually a professor at another university) and we occasionally invite in other externals. For example, we brought in a biologist to talk about legal recognition of animals. We’ve also invited in representatives from our EDI group or the SU to bring in different voices to help us inform and break down some of those barriers.

8. Describe any challenges that you have had to overcome either before, during or after implementing this project?

The biggest challenge originally was to secure engagement from our academics- negotiating fixed time and fixed people for each Ethics Review College. There was a sense that research ethics was separate and wasn’t overseen by the university so we were forced to have an open dialogue about what research ethics really means.

Once it was clear how it feeds into the work of the university and academic’s individual work, for example, we broke down what research integrity is and how this should permeate into our teaching process.

9. Next steps?

We really want to continue to ingratiate the idea that integrity and ethics is about principles and good practice and want to see those principles spawning into our academics’ processes more- like public engagement and commercialisation. 

We really want our ethics policy to develop into a suite of resources to allow us to create quality partnerships and to make these conversations happen organically – and of course keep it evolving so that it continues to support the strategic direction of the work we’re doing as a University.

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