BACKGROUND: It can be argued that the ethical conduct of research involves achieving a balance between the rights and needs of three parties-potential research participants, society, and researchers. Local Research Ethics Committees (LRECs) have a number of roles and functions in the research enterprise, but there have been some indications that LREC members, researchers and the public can have different views about these responsibilities. Any such differences are potential sources of disagreement and misunderstanding. OBJECTIVES: To compare the views of LREC members, researchers and the public towards the roles and functions of LRECs. DESIGN: A questionnaire that contained items concerned with a variety of such roles was distributed to general practice patients (as proxies for potential research participants), researchers and LREC members. FINDINGS: While general practice patients believed that the main function of LRECs is to ensure that research participants come to no harm, LREC members were more concerned with the protection of participants' rights. There was also some disagreement between members and researchers with regard to the consideration of proposals on the grounds of scientific merit. CONCLUSIONS: Local Research Ethics Committee members need to be aware of potential differences in views, that they ought to make their priorities clear, and that membership of LRECs ought to reflect the views of both researchers and potential research participants.
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