The review board will see you now.
Ahh research ethics, the bottom line is, if your research involves other people, you’re going to need an ethics clearance.
But what if your main participants are animals? We hear about issues of informed consent, privacy and confidentiality, but does an animal subject need informed consent?
Let’s take two steps back.
1. How do you define something that doesn’t have a universal definition?
Ethics are widely agreed moral principles about what is right and wrong in society. However ethics are a very grey area; they are subjective and rely heavily on guidelines, regulation and self-implementation.
2. Why do we need them?
Ethics serve in minimising the risk of legal action, and the protection of researcher reputation (Weerakkody, 2008) and more importantly the protection of research participants.
So Meet Nim
Nim was a chimpanzee raised like a human and taught sign language in an experiment to disprove theories that saw language as an innate and uniquely human trait (Segerdahl, 2012).
Herb Terrace, a psychology professor at Columbia University, conducted the experiment in the 1970s. But was it a revolutionary study, or a tragic waiting to happen?
The project was criticised for “putting ‘ethics’ on the back-burner because it was just too exciting,” (Brown, 2011) and has consequently raised ethical issues at every stage of research proposed by Weerakkody (2008); design, data collection, analysis, reporting and publication.
Stephanie LaFarge, Terrace’s former psychology graduate, adopted Nim. From the get-go, he was raised as human but was he exploited?
The Nuremberg code (1949) specifies the avoidance of unnecessary physical or psychological trauma to subjects (Weerakkody, 2008). Nim’s life was unnatural, and perhaps was what led to his reluctance to participate. His ‘parents’ passed joints and it was not long before ‘stone’ and ‘smoke’ were added to his vocabulary.
He became a celebrity, featuring in newspapers, magazines and chat shows (Brown, 2011). He even became possessive over LaFarge and more aggressive as his natural instincts kicked in.
The project ended much like Weerakkody’s (2008) suggestion for researchers, “to immediately end any project found to be causing harm,” and Nim was returned to a primate research centre.
But did he receive sufficient treatment upon completion? According to Brown (2011) he was left to a caged and solitary existence.
Hartley (2011), psychologist in clinical training, presents a differing view. He identifies a story of humans competing for power over Nim, whilst “anthropomorphically mindreading the chimp’s best interest to suit their own.”
He raises an interesting point regarding power among clients, patients and participants. Does informed consent only make it easier to avoid such abuse of power?
LaFarge reviews the project as a failure of moral will, she took a creature into her home without having any plan for the rest of its life, a plan for ‘doing the right thing.’ (Brown, 2011). Perhaps that was the problem, the design was ill planned from the very beginning.
She also accused Terrace for “ignoring results that didn’t fit into his template.” (Brown, 2011). This is a significant issue in data analysis. As Weerakkody (2008) suggests, it’s important to draw conclusions consistent with your data, not to stretch them to fit your desires.
But is this the result of an imbalanced portrayal? With diminished scientific credibility, Terrace (2011) sets the record straight: Segerdahl (2012) agrees, that such negative results present hard scientific evidence. But I can’t help but wonder if the project was even worth it. Could there have been alternative approaches? I want to know what you think.
Here are some comments from the film’s YouTube trailer.
Brown, Mick. ‘Project Nim: The Chimp Who Was Brought Up Like A Child’. The Telegraph 2011. [Online] Accessed 2 Apr. 2015. Available from: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/film/8681237/Project-Nim-the-chimp-who-was-brought-up-like-a-child.html
Hartley, Nick. ‘Project Nim: Chimps, People And Ethics’. The British Psychology Society. N.p., 2011. [Online] Accessed: 2 Apr. 2015. Available from: http://www.bps.org.uk/news/project-nim-chimps-people-and-ethics
Segerdahl, Par. ‘Project Nim: A Tragedy That Was Interpreted As Science?’. The Ethics Blog 2012. [Online] Accesed 2 Apr. 2015. Available from: http://ethicsblog.crb.uu.se/2012/10/12/project-nim-a-tragedy-that-was-interpreted-as-science/
Terrace, Herbert. ‘Project Nim: The Untold Story’. Speaking of Research 2011. [Online] Accessed 2 Apr. 2015. Available from: http://speakingofresearch.com/2011/08/15/project-nim-the-untold-story/
Weerakkody, N 2008, ‘Research ethics in media and communication’, Research Methods for Media and Communications, Oxford University Press Australia and New Zealand, Vic., pp73-91.