The NYTimes has a fascinating article about MIT professors — developmental psychologists mostly — who use their own children’s development as data in their research. Though in nearly all cases, they are studying normal child development and not doing any of potentially harmful intervention, this presents difficult ethical issues because of the dual roles as parent and as researcher:
Some research methods are clearly benign; others, while not obviously dangerous, might not have fully understood effects. Ethicists said they would consider participation in some projects acceptable, even valuable, but raised questions about the effect on the child, on the relationship with the parent, and on the objectivity of the researcher or the data.
“The role of the parent is to protect the child,” said Robert M. Nelson, director of the Center for Research Integrity at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. “Once that parent becomes an investigator, it sets up an immediate potential conflict of interest. And it potentially takes the parent-child relationship and distorts it in ways that are unpredictable.”
Researchers themselves acknowledge the challenge of being simultaneously scientist and parent.
“I don’t want them to feel uncomfortable, like I’m invading their
privacy,” said Dr. Linebarger, who ultimately set some boundaries.
“When you mix being a researcher with being a parent, it can put your
kids in an unfair place.”
Children have been subjects for some well-known scientist-parents,
including Jean Piaget, the child-development theorist. But some past
examples would probably not pass ethical muster today.
Jonas Salk injected his children with his polio vaccine. Clarence
Leuba, a psychologist, wondering if laughter in response to tickling
was learned or innate, forbade tickling of his infant son and daughter,
except when he tickled them, wearing a mask to hide his expression.
These days, scientists using human subjects are expected to seek
approval from institutional review boards, which consider federal
regulations on risk, coercion of subjects and researcher bias.
Some scientists said that in studies with multiple subjects they
considered it unnecessary to report their child’s participation,
because they would face no greater risk than others. Some asserted that
involving their children proved risks were minimal.
Read the whole thing.
I think if conscientiously done these types of experiments are ethical. The researchers have to seek Institutional approval already, and I do think they should disclose when their own children are subjects.
The article even suggests that in some cases it brings the parents and children closer. I though this part was funny:
And when Karen Dobkins, a U.C.S.D. psychology professor, enlisted
her infant twins, Gabriel and Jacob, she said, “it was kind of painful,
because one of my twin boys basically played the game really well, but
my other son, we couldn’t even use his data.” She said that “made me
worry that he had autism.”
Her worries proved unfounded.
Still, she said, “I took only the good data and copied it and put it in
both of their baby books.”
“Here is where you got all muddy, and here is your EEG from when you were 2.”
What do you think?