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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
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
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,
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
"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
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
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
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
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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