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Working to protect human subjects
Nan Ni, The Harvard Crimson
December 12, 2006

For five days last December, Zimbabwean officials jailed thesis researcher Amar C. Bakshi ’06 on charges of espionage. During his brush with authority, one thing he did not have to worry about was the safety of his interviewees.

Long before, in Cambridge, Mass., Bakshi had worked with the Standing Committee on the Use of Human Subjects in Research, which reviewed his methods to make sure neither he nor his research subjects would be endangered.

"When interrogated, I never divulged real names, and instead used the fictive names concocted beforehand," said Bakshi, who was doing research on political propaganda in the country.

Getting to a country like Zimbabwe on Harvard’s dime is one thing. The University only last year loosened restrictions on a number of countries, including Iran, Israel, and Lebanon.

But a second hurdle students face is getting approval from the Human Subjects Committee on what they can and can’t ask."In different parts of the world, the data collected by students can be damaging to the subjects’ reputation or legal standing," said Dean R. Gallant ’72, an executive officer on the Committee,

Dangerous questions
The University set up the committee in the fall of 2003 to review applications submitted by undergraduate and graduate students, as well as faculty members, who propose research projects that involve human subjects.

When the group considers projects in politically volatile regions of the world, its purpose is two-fold: It must protect the safety of both students and subjects.

This past summer, Krister B. Anderson ’07 did research in Morocco on the repression of the country’s largest Islamic group. Before approving his research application, the committee made sure that he went to great lengths to prevent the people he was interviewing from potentially dangerous consequences from the government.

"My proposal definitely received more scrutiny and took more time to be reviewed than I expected," he said. "In the end, I was not allowed to record conversations or take down the names of the people I was interviewing. That way, if I were apprehended by the government, there was no way that they could be identified or held accountable by my research."

Anderson said that the committee took more than a month to review his proposal, both talking to other people who knew Morocco’s political situation and contacting the U.S. Embassy in the country.

But despite the concern for the subjects of his research, Anderson said he was never particularly worried about his own safety.

"There was little fear that members of the group would try to do something to me, given that they are an avowedly non-violent group," he said. "Still, I was always careful and made sure I always had two ways out of any place."

A bureaucratic buffer
According to the Committee’s "Intelligent Scholars" guide online, if a proposal poses no possible harm to the subjects, then the researcher can bypass the committee’s formal application process and instead seek accelerated approval.

The committee, which meets monthly, sifts through about 1,200 proposals each year. In many cases, it works with both researchers and experts to revise the design to guarantee safety, according to Jane B. Calhoun, a research officer on the committee.

But Gallant said that the committee tries to minimize the delay to the start of a project, and stressed the group’s reluctance to reject proposals.

"There are very few studies that can’t be modified to satisfy our safety standards, but when there is possible danger to anyone involved, we must weigh the risk to the subject and researcher against the project’s scientific merit," Gallant said. "When we are considering proposals to do research abroad, we must also take into account the student’s past experience with the language, the government, and local customs."

For your own protection?
Another way in which Harvard attempts to protect students is by denying funding for countries on Harvard’s "travel warnings" list.

Only 18 countries remain on the list of places that Harvard will not send students, down from 26 before the list was shortened in fall of last year. The current list also includes Iraq, Indonesia, and Sudan, and still largely overlaps with the countries currently with travel warnings by the U.S. State Department.

Proud Dzambukira ’07, who helped organize a petition that factored into lifting restrictions on some countries, said that students should be given more freedom in deciding where to do research.

"There are many countries on the State Department’s list that just aren’t that dangerous, and it is unfair for politics to determine where students can and cannot do research." Dzambukira said.

But Casey M. Lurtz ’07, who did research this past summer in Chiapas, Mexico with a human rights group, said that she understands the College’s caution in wanting to protect both researchers and subjects.

"I understand why the College would be careful," she said. "Their responsibility is to protect students."

But Lurtz added, "I wished they would set up a training program to prepare students for field research in any country. After all, the most interesting topics often can only be found in places that aren’t always safe."

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