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CAUT Bulletin Archives

November 1998

Unified Research Ethics Code Forces Universal Compliance

All faculty associations need to act promptly in response to a recently adopted policy statement on research ethics issued by Canada's three granting councils. Universities have until September 1999, to bring their own ethics policies in line with the new Tri-Council position. All research conducted at the university, whether or not funded by a granting council, must comply.

The Tri-Council policy statement: Ethical Conduct for Research Involving Humans was developed jointly by the Medical Research Council of Canada, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. The document replaces both SSHRC's and MRC's guidelines for research with human subjects.

The Councils will consider funding (or continued funding) only to individuals and institutions which certify compliance with this new policy. Should a university not com-ply with the Tri-Council policy by September 1999, researchers working there will not be eligible for funding from the Tri-Councils.

Every university already has in place procedures for reviewing the ethical conduct for research involving humans. These procedures are likely similar to the Tri-Council policy except that the new policy is a unified code that applies to all disciplines and research. And, in some cases, it may include types of research that were previously exempt.

Research Ethics Boards
Under the Tri-Council policy, all research that involves living human subjects requires review and approval by a Research Ethics Board (REB) before the research begins. As well, research involving human remains, cadavers, tissues, biological fluids, embryos or foetuses must be reviewed by the REB. The REB will have the authority to approve, reject, propose modifications to, or terminate any proposed or ongoing research involving human subjects which is conducted within, or by members of, the university and which does not meet the minimum standards outlined in the policy statement.

REBs must consist of at least five members, including both men and women, of whom at least two must have broad experience in the methods or in the area of research that are covered by the REB; at least one member who is knowledgeable in ethics; and at least one member who has no affiliation with the university but who is recruited from the broader community served by the university.

For biomedical research, the REB must also include a member who is knowledgeable in the relevant law. Large universities may have several REBs to deal with specific types of research; small universities may operate a joint REB on a cooperative basis. The policy statement does not spell out the process for establishing a REB.

Associations Must Act Now
Whether through Senate or through collective agreements, faculty associations should ensure their involvement in the implementation of the Tri-Council policy. CAUT staff and officers as well as CAUT's Academic Freedom and Tenure Committee and Collective Bargaining and Economic Benefits Committee are prepared to assist in developing strategy with respect to implementation of the policy or drafting appropriate language for collective agreements.

A copy of the policy statement may be obtained from the Medical Research Council of Canada, Holland Cross, Tower B, 5th Floor, 1600 Scott St, PL3105A, Ottawa ON K1A 0W9; or downloaded from these web sites,, The Tri-Councils have also posted answers to what they expect to be frequently asked questions about the policy statement. A copy of CAUT's advice to faculty associations is available on the CAUT web site