When Lori Walker started her master’s degree at Brock University more than a decade ago, she didn’t realize that her work would impact the professional standing of research ethics administrators nationwide.
At the time, Walker, now manager of Research Ethics at the University, had just joined an organization called the Canadian Association of Research Ethics Boards (CAREB). As a new member juggling school and work, she was keen to investigate and standardize the patchwork of roles, responsibilities and professional identities of staff charged with ensuring the protection of people participating in research.
“The field of research ethics administration wasn’t formally recognized as a profession in itself,” says Walker. “Often, people were assigned to do the work off the side of their desk, or it was tacked onto another job.”
Her research and subsequent advocacy efforts led the federal government’s Secretariat on Responsible Conduct of Research (SRCR) to formally recognize research ethics administration as a profession and enable ethics administrators to take an active role in the research ethics review process.
“Research ethics administrators went from being the secretaries of Research Ethics Boards at universities to becoming the secretariat of these boards,” says Rachel Zand, Director of Human Research Ethics at the University of Toronto’s Human Research Ethics Unit and former CAREB President.
For this and other work, CAREB awarded Walker with the President’s Award for “outstanding contribution and commitment to CAREB, contributing significantly to the development and improvement of research ethics review and management in Canada.”
Researchers planning to involve human participants in their research must apply to their institution’s Research Ethics Board (REB) to show how they will manage potential risks to participants, including issues of privacy and confidentiality, free and informed consent, and data management.
When reviewing research, REBs apply the core principles of respect for persons, welfare and justice, derived from the Tri-Council Policy Statement: Ethical Conduct for Research Involving Humans (TCPS2).
All institutions that receive federal research funding from the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research must be compliant with the TCPS2 guidelines that govern research ethics review.
Research ethics administrators play a key role in supporting REBs by interpreting research ethics policy and regulations, providing education and advice to researchers and REBs, and ensuring that institutions are compliant with federal guidelines.
Walker says that Brock has two REBs: the Bioscience Research Ethics Board (BREB) and the Social Science Research Ethics Board (SREB).
“Our job first and foremost is to facilitate research so that it is conducted in such a way that respects the well-being of human participants in the broadest sense,” she says. “The relationship between the researcher and the participant needs to be built on trust and respect; research ethics boards help to protect that relationship.”
In addition to gaining recognition for the profession of research ethics administration, Walker provided other expertise to the TCPS2, notably influencing the section of the document that addresses how and when deception may be used in research
CAREB Past President Rachel Zand lauded Walker’s contributions during her three-year presidency of CAREB, her main accomplishments being the restructuring of the CAREB Board of Directors, updating bylaws and heading efforts to become incorporated.
“Lori organized countless conferences on both the provincial and national level,” says Zand. “She did everything from inviting the most prestigious speakers to ordering the swag and approving the menu. Any task that you gave her, she would do it amazingly well.”
Walker notes that education was at the heart of her CAREB leadership activities.
“Ongoing education and professional development opportunities are essential for research ethics administrators to take on the larger role of interpreting and advising on policy,” she says. “In turn, research ethics administrators are often the people who go on to train and educate REB Chairs and REB members. Conferences provide an important space for networking; it’s very important to be able to bounce things off your colleagues and discuss things that are going on in an ever-changing field.”
Zand notes that Walker originated the “virtual REB,” an online professional development resource that enables users to evaluate cases as a REB member would, providing a means for expanding their knowledge and expertise.
“I’m very grateful for the support from Brock that enabled me to take part in CAREB,” says Walker. “It’s a reciprocal relationship; as much as I contributed to CAREB, I made invaluable professional connections and benefitted from knowledge that I was able to bring back and apply at Brock.”