Value system failure requires drastic measures – Expert
Such directorates will go beyond governing how ethical research is conducted, to also include how an institution is run, and how education in the university is delivered and acquired.
The plea came from Ike Obiora, professor of ethics and intercultural studies at the Godfrey Okoye University, Nigeria, who is also the executive director of the Geneva-based Global Ethics Centre. He contributed to the Power of Knowledge symposium on ethics and integrity in research collaborations hosted by research integrity group EthiXPERT in Johannesburg, South Africa.
According to Obiora, universities in Africa have the responsibility to go beyond teaching students and also teach them the ethical way of doing things for the good of the learners and for the continent to thrive.
Universities, therefore, must take their role to shape students’ characters seriously, by teaching the importance of integrity in everyday life beyond its importance in academics, he added, noting that system and “character failure” in higher education was the reason for the ethical failure in the conducting of research.
As such, the problem of ethics in the conduct of research should not be seen in isolation but as part of a wider societal problem that institutions can help alleviate, Obiora observed.
For instance, while education imparts knowledge on people, knowledge can also be misused to the detriment of society, obliging higher education institutions to help build good character through training.
By doing so, the universities will be contributing to solving many problems in the continent, and around the world, attributable to “ethics gaps” in education.
“Universities have a role to join and help build a global coalition for good, founded on character [-building] which is realisable through education,” he said.
In search of ‘authentic’ partnerships
The symposium also focused on ethical processes during research collaborations, in particular those involving partners from different parts of the world.
The notion that Africa lacks the capacity for knowledge production, requiring patronage from wealthy countries in the North is no longer accurate, as the continent was mainly disadvantaged by “unequal relations” with the Western allies, said Dr Genevieve James from the Division of Community Engagement and Outreach at the University of South Africa.
So, whereas it may be disadvantaged in terms of financial resources, it has the capacity to provide other necessary resources, including human capital, its rich heritage, logistical support and other forms of capital, to make its researchers and institutions equal collaborators in any research venture.
Africa has also, among others, suffered other disadvantages including unequal access to information and communications technology (ICT) capacity and resources, the language of the internet (English and other foreign languages), unequal research and innovation spending, capacity for publishing, and historical factors such as colonialism, besides the existing knowledge divide, she explained.
“We have come to learn that money is not the panacea for all the development problems facing Africa and the world. It does not solve all the problems but it facilitates their solving,” James told the symposium attendees.
Despite facing many challenges, including one of rapid urbanisation, a huge youth demographic, climate change, conflicts and loss of biodiversity, the continent must, at all times, insist on “authentic knowledge partnerships” with external allies, she said in her keynote address.
“Research partnerships between the North and the South are increasing every day and they should be seen as an attempt to neutralise inequalities and give way to mutually enabling collaborations.”
As such, James noted, partnerships should never be seen or be allowed to perpetuate competition between African and Western researchers, adding that doing so would only serve to widen the “knowledge divide” in the world, leading to more marginalisation.
Universities around the world, James said, are expressing a “commitment to civic engagement” by placing communities at the centre of their research, while seeking to address issues affecting their well-being, and the same should be the case for Africa.
Setting up an African experts database
Besides ‘asymmetrical’ North-South knowledge relations, ethical problems were always common where multiple stakeholders, “uneven power dynamics”, conflicting world view, interests and values were present. Efforts to resolve these problems should be ongoing.
She cautioned: “Africa must guard against being seen as perpetual mentees and be careful to ensure that the expectations of donors match our own interests. We must be on the lookout for vested interests, asking ourselves questions such as: whom does the research benefit, seek to achieve or even punish.”
That aside, she noted Africa must take steps and get its act together, among other things by reducing donor reliance on research funding, and by governments increasing their funding for their science, technology and innovation sectors.
The flooding of aid to support research in Africa was never a good thing in the long term, as it only encouraged governments to delay taking steps towards attaining self-reliance in the sector.
Practical steps for equal partnerships could begin by African institutions creating a database for its expertise across the board, as one way of assessing its strength before engaging in collaborations.
Forging and strengthening intra-Africa partnerships would be a way out of inequitable alliances, she added.
The view was shared by Dr Thomas Nyirenda, the manager of strategic partnerships and capacity development for the European & Developing Countries Clinical Trials Partnership (EDCTP), who noted that, while money-power balance was difficult to achieve in a partnership, “it was wrong to think that money was the only important thing”.
Weaknesses in measuring contributions has neglected important aspects of research such as contribution in kind; such as the time spent by communities giving and sharing their knowledge with data collectors, or sometimes as actual gatherers of the same, he argued.
New ways of measuring contributions were, therefore, needed to appreciate the roles of communities in Africa, Nyirenda added.