Research ethics

We discuss here some of the issues that arise when conducting research into a sensitive issue like EMFs and public health.

Funding of research and independence

When research is funded by industry, it is important that the integrity and independence of the research is not compromised.  

When the UK electricity industry supports research projects into EMFs (either by offering data or financial support) there is always a contract created to guarantee the independence of the study.  The contract is slightly different each time, tailored to the specific project, but a typical form would be as follows.

 

Research project [name of project]

The [electricity company concerned] has already offered to co-operate with the study [brief details of study] (“the Study”) which will continue until [insert end date].  The co-operation will take the form of [insert details].

This letter sets out the conditions under which this co-operation will take place.  This agreement is made and shall be interpreted in accordance with English Law.  Any amendments to the Agreement shall be mutually agreed in writing by both parties.

1 Any Data supplied by [insert company concerned] may be used for the purposes of the Study, but where such Data is marked or notified as confidential, shall not be used for any other purpose or disposed of or disclosed to any other person (save for the purposes of the Study) except with the prior written permission of the relevant company.

2 The University has the right to conduct the Study in whatever way it sees fit, including the right to publish any or all of the results of the Study in whatever way it sees fit.  The University will use its best endeavours to ensure that the results of the Study are published in the peer-reviewed scientific literature regardless of what those results may be.

3 The results of the Study and any all intellectual property arising from the conduct of the Study shall be the property of the University.  The University and those working on the Study shall have the irrevocable right to use such results and such intellectual property for academic and research purposes, and for the purpose of clinical patient care.

4 The University is not required to seek the comments of [company concerned] on any proposed publications.  You may invite [company concerned] to comment on any proposed publications, but there is no obligation to act on or to incorporate any comments made by [company concerned].

5 The University will allow [company concerned] to see any of its publications or external presentation of the results arising out of the Study at least one calendar month before it is submitted or released  to a scientific journal, the media or to the public. [Company concerned] will limit the circulation of any such material to such individuals in [company concerned] as are necessary to prepare a response to the contents.  Those individuals will preserve the confidentiality of the material until it is published by the University.

6 [Company concerned] will exercise all reasonable care and diligence in providing Data, results of calculations and advice, but will not be liable for the consequences of any errors or mistakes.  The University will exercise its reasonable care and diligence in the use made of any Data, results of calculations and advice provided by [company concerned], but will not be liable for the consequences of any errors or mistakes.

7 [Company concerned] accepts that The University does not warrant that the Study will produce any particular result.  [Company concerned] accepts that The University  shall not be under any liability for any use which may be made of the results of the Study.

8 [Company concerned] intend that the co-operation shall continue until the end of the Study.  Either party shall be entitled to terminate the co-operation after 90 days written notification to the other Party for any breach of these terms and conditions if the breach is not remedied within the ninety-day notice period.

Please acknowledge within fourteen days receipt of this letter, confirming your acceptance of the conditions set out herein by signature of the copy enclosed.

 

Communicating the results

As with research into any other public health issue, there is a risk that research on EMFs, if communicated to the public in a misleading, unbalanced or sensationalist way, could cause unjustified concern or anxiety. The way to avoid this is to follow the accepted standards for disseminating research, in particular, the element of peer-review publication.

This was expressed in a letter to several of the UK's national newspapers on 23 Feb 1999 from a group of Fellows of the Royal Society. The final paragraph read:

“It is a dangerous mistake, vividly illustrated by the events of the past week concerning GM foods, to assume that all statements claiming to be scientific can be taken at face value. Good science is work that has stood up to detailed scrutiny by independent workers in the field and contributes to new knowledge and understanding. Those who start telling the media about alleged scientific results that have not first been thoroughly scrutinised and exposed to the scientific community serve only to mislead, with potentially very damaging consequences.”  [full letter at bottom of page]

A similar point was made by the then President of the Royal Society, Sir Aaron Klug OM, in his Royal Society Anniversary Address 1999, delivered on 30 November 1999:

“Thus the Society has an unparalleled record in promoting the role of the peer-reviewed journal as the vehicle for sifting and disseminating worthwhile science. This matters because I believe strongly that, before rushing to tell the world about a new finding, the scientist has a duty to make sure, so far as possible, that he or she is right. The best way to do that is to expose the finding to experts able to criticise the work. Of course, not everything that is published is right, even in peer-reviewed journals, but peer review is the best defence we have against broadcasting error. Much mischief has been caused by scientists seeking publicity for unreviewed ‘findings’ that turn out to be seriously wrong, and the Society has had to devote a great deal of time in the past year to the consequences.”


Several scientific journals have rules against publicising scientific work before it has been properly peer-reviewed and published:

A set of guidelines on good practice for both scientists and journalists has recently been published by the Social Issues Research Centre, the Royal Institution, and the Royal Society.

transcription of letter published in The Guardian, Tuesday 23 February 1999 (essentially the same letter also appeared in other broadsheet papers that day)
We believe that the time is right to bring good science into the centre of decision-making and focus its impact in our increasingly technologically-driven world. In many of the major policy issues that confront us today - global food security, energy needs, environmental conservation, climate change - it is impossible to make wise decisions without reference to the underpinning science. Three consequences follow.

First, you need good scientists for decision-makers to consult. The UK is therefore fortunate in having an exceptionally strong scientific community with the Royal Society promoting excellence in science. Second, decision makers must, and increasingly do, recognise when they are dealing with a science-related issue. And third, we all need to distinguish good science from bad science.

It is a dangerous mistake, vividly illustrated by the events of the past week concerning GM foods, to assume that all statements claiming to be scientific can be taken at face value. Good science is work that has stood up to detailed scrutiny by independent workers in the field and contributes to new knowledge and understanding. Those who start telling the media about alleged scientific results that have not first been thoroughly scrutinised and exposed to the scientific community serve only to mislead, with potentially very damaging consequences.

Prof Brian Heap FRS, The Royal Society et al
The letter as printed in The Guardian lists 8 names and says “and 11 others”. The fuller list of names printed in the Daily Telegraph on the same day was:

Prof Brian Heap
Prof Patrick Bateson
Sir Eric Ash
Prof Roy Anderson
Sir Alan Cook
Sir Roger Elliott
Prof William Hill
Prof Louise Johnson
Prof Sir John Kingman
Prof Peter Lachmann
Dr Paul Nurse
Prof Linda Partridge
Dr Max Perutz
Prof Sir William Rees
Sir Richard Southwood
Sir John Meurig Thomas
Prof Sir Ghillean Prance
Earl of Selbourne

Peer review

Peer review is the process scientific journals use when a paper is submitted to them.  They ask other scientists working in the area to look at the paper, to judge whether it is of good enough quality to publish, and to make suggestions for improvement.

Peer review does not guarantee that a paper is correct, but it's a fairly essential basic quality-control step that papers need to go through before being for the rest of the scientific community to read.

Review bodies will normally confine themselves only to peer-reviewed papers.  Most of the papers we discuss on this site are peer-reviewed, but we do list some which are not peer-reviewed as well.