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Prof. Dr. Michael Scheffel / Chairman of the Ethics Committee
Photo: UniService Transfer

"Research is just not allowed to do everything"

Prof. Dr. Michael Scheffel, Prorector for Research, External Funding and Graduate Funding, on the tasks of the Ethics Commission of the University of Wuppertal

'The object of ethics is morality', defines the Gabler economic lexicon. At its center is the specific moral action. "Freedom of research and teaching is guaranteed in the Basic Law, Article 5, Paragraph 3", explains Prof. Dr. Michael Scheffel, as Prorector for Research and Office Chairman of the Ethics Commission of the University of Wuppertal, "but freedom has its limits where it violates other fundamental rights". This applies equally to research and teaching, and therefore research is not allowed to do everything. If fundamental rights of any kind could be violated, it would be necessary to consider and negotiate with the scientists what research is allowed and not allowed to do. "This is a personal responsibility of the researchers, and it involves not only legal but also ethical questions. And it is not always easy to clarify these in detail."

Protection of human dignity

For this reason there is also an Ethics Commission at the University of Wuppertal, which issues meaningful statements. These can be particularly decisive when it comes to the realization of third-party funded projects of external donors. "The Ethics Commission of our university examines and evaluates research projects on request according to ethical criteria with regard to the protection of human dignity as well as the autonomy and self-determination of people who are involved in research projects", Scheffel describes the concrete task defined in the guidelines.

Ethics Commission consists of six people

The university commission has six members (plus deputies) who regularly evaluate legal, ethical and social aspects of project applications. "In this commission we have an external physician who was chairman of the ethics committee of a hospital for many years, we have a theologian, a psychologist, an engineer and of course a lawyer", says Scheffel. The work of the members always begins with a corresponding application, because "the Ethics Commission is not a commission that sifts through projects on its own initiative, but rather one to which one applies for a vote or an examination. This always happens when scientific project planners are not sure whether their investigation is ethically justifiable. All experiments that are to be carried out with humans in a broader sense are part of it. Although the Commission has basically only an advisory and judging function, the chairman explains, and cannot prohibit a project, third-party funding bodies often demand the ethical review of a research project, which is carried out by the Commission and ideally certified with a positive result. "If, for example, I would like to be funded by the DFG (German Research Foundation) and need a positive ethics vote, but the Commission declares that this project cannot be considered ethically unobjectionable from its point of view, then the DFG will not fund this project, and to that extent it cannot be carried out in the end".

Certified harmlessness is often a dialogical process

The situation is different for Master's or Bachelor's theses, which are also examined. Scheffel gives a concrete example: "It is conceivable, for example, that a sociological project could be conducted to find out whether renters have prejudices against foreigners. To do this, the applicant would like to write emails in broken German to selected people to apply for an apartment, but of course not explaining that this is a test," he reports. "This may be revealing, but cannot be judged as ethically unobjectionable, because you are deceiving the test subjects. But even in the case of ethical concerns on the part of the Commission, the scientist concludes, it is ultimately up to the student - at least from a formal point of view - to write the paper anyway.
In view of the significance of the Commission's decisions, it is important for Scheffel to emphasize, "that we do not interfere with the freedom of research and teaching in a regulatory sense, because we cannot prohibit it in terms of content". Moreover, it is often a dialogical process, in the course of which the applicants are often pointed out to the Commission that the project is possible from the Commission's point of view if, for example, the subjects are informed differently or data is treated differently. "Sometimes we combine this with a specific condition to give the vote definitively, and in other cases we combine it with advice.

Safety engineering: a case for the Ethics Commission?

Although the Commission does not necessarily have to decide unanimously, all concerns will be considered and communicated to the applicants. "We now have one or two applications almost every week," says Scheffel, who come from a wide variety of disciplines. "Most of the projects tend to come from the social sciences, psychology, sports and educational sciences, but also, for example, safety engineering," he enumerates. Sports often involve experiments or surveys of test persons on the subject of sport and health, while safety engineering projects focus on fire protection or foot traffic. "For many of these things," he explains "you always use test subjects whose behavior is being tested. And this is called 'experiments with humans' and usually requires an ethics vote as soon as it is funded by the DFG, for example. Ethical issues include questions of data protection, which in such cases is usually also relevant.

Basic questionnaire clarifies the basic conditions

Applicants must agree to what may be a two-stage procedure.

"There is a basic questionnaire and there is a detailed questionnaire. The basic questionnaire has eleven questions to be answered and its main purpose is to ensure that the dignity and integrity of the people participating in the experiments and investigations are not compromised," says Scheffel.

For example, the participants must not be subjected to pain or psychological stress, and their data must be treated in accordance with data protection laws. Scheffel explains that if such violations can already be ruled out by answering the basic questionnaire, there will be no further examination apart from a separate reading of the application documents. One could then declare this to be ethically unobjectionable in a relatively routine manner. "However, if one of the questions is answered in the affirmative, if you go into areas where obviously sensitive things happen, then the examination is more complex," he adds, and the second step of the procedure begins.

The entire procedure is largely circular, i.e. all Commission members receive the scanned documents by email via the office of the chairman. "Each member then submits his or her written statement. If there are any doubts, this is discussed again, the applicants receive possible objections, criticism and suggestions for changes in anonymized form and then comment on them again. Although communication takes place mainly in a virtual room, it is transparent and public for all members. Everyone can read each other's email and, if necessary, join or contradict the other. Discussions also take place there. And we have already practiced this in times before Corona".

No evaluation of animal experiments

In Wuppertal, the main focus is on the protection of human dignity, and since the University of Wuppertal is not home to subjects such as pharmacy or classical medicine, the commission does not have to evaluate animal experiments. "However, this does exist at other universities. The problem and the legitimacy of animal experiments are, for example, repeated and often discussed very emotionally in the context of pharmacological research at the University of Münster".

Much discussed: Administrative ethics in public authorities

And then there is the relatively newly discussed area of administrative ethics, which deals with issues of corruption, administrative reform and staffing, and which has found its way into many institutions. "Administrative ethics is a sub-area of applied ethics and not in terms of the subject matter, but as an independent concept it is still comparatively new in this country," explains Scheffel. "In Germany, people traditionally focus more on legal regulations in the area of administration, i.e. legality and less legitimacy. In this sense, people trust first and foremost in corresponding laws. Independent of this, however, the University of Wuppertal has, for example, a compliance officer who is supposed to ensure that laws, internal and external guidelines as well as self-imposed ethical standards and requirements are adhered to at the university. In addition, we are currently working on a set of rules to ensure good scientific practice, and this covers many of such ethical questions, at least in the area of research. For example, it is intended to ensure that employees are treated fairly, that the natural environment is not exploited, that no potentially inappropriate data or findings are withheld, and that the share of project participants in research results is appropriately appreciated".

On the Ethics Commission's website you can find detailed information about the Ethics Commission's guidelines and download both application questionnaires.

Uwe Blass (Interview on 05.08.2020)

Prof. Dr. Michael Scheffel studied German, Romance Studies and Literature and Art History in Tübingen, Tours and Göttingen and habilitated in 1995. In 2002 he became professor of Modern German Literary History and General Literature at the University of Wuppertal. Since 2008, he has also been Vice Rector for Research, External Funding and Graduate Funding at the University of Wuppertal.