Research ethics committees—animal ethics committees (AECs) for animal-based research and institutional research boards (IRBs) for human subjects—have a key role in research governance, but there has been little study of the factors influencing their effectiveness. The objectives of this study were to examine how the effectiveness of a research ethics committee is influenced by committee composition and dynamics, recruitment of members, workload, participation level and member turnover. As a model, 28 members of AECs at four universities in western Canada were interviewed. Committees were selected to represent variation in the number and type of protocols reviewed, and participants were selected to include different types of committee members. We found that a bias towards institutional or scientific interests may result from (1) a preponderance of institutional and scientist members, (2) an intimidating atmosphere for community members and other minority members, (3) recruitment of community members who are affiliated with the institution and (4) members joining for reasons other than to fulfil the committee mandate. Thoroughness of protocol review may be influenced by heavy workloads, type of review process and lack of full committee participation. These results, together with results from the literature on research ethics committees, suggested potential ways to improve the effectiveness of research ethics committees.
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↵i One committee’s policy stated that decisions were to be made by majority vote. However, committee members reported making decisions by consensus.
↵ii In Canada, the Canadian Council on Animal Careref11 requires that the AEC includes “at least one person representing community interests and concerns, and who has no affiliation with the institution”.
Funding: This research was funded by The International Foundation for Ethical Research (IFER) through a postgraduate fellowship; by the UBC Animal Welfare Program that is funded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada; the BCSPCA; the BC Veterinary Medical Association; and other sponsors listed on the programme website at www.landfood.ubc.ca/animalwelfare/. The sponsors had no role in the study design; in the collection, analysis and interpretation of data; in writing of the report; and in the decision to submit the paper for publication.
Competing interests: None.
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