In the United States, the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues has proposed deliberative democracy as an approach for dealing with ethical issues surrounding synthetic biology. Deliberative democracy might similarly help us as we update the regulation of human subjects research. This paper considers how the values that deliberative democratic engagement aims to realize can be realized in a human subjects research context.
Deliberative democracy is characterized by an ongoing exchange of ideas between participants, and an effort to justify decisions that bind participants by appeal to reasons that the participants can understand and share. Even when unanimous agreement is not reached, the active participation of everyone along with the requirement that reasons be made accessible enhances the legitimacy of the ultimate outcome. Importantly, deliberative democratic structures avoid strict hierarchies and place participants, as much as possible, in the position of equals.
Human subjects research has some features that may make deliberative democratic principles seem initially unappealing. For one, there are asymmetries in knowledge between expert researchers conducting the research and participants in the research process. For another, statistical validity is made easiest by research paradigms that produce standardized, quantitative data, which can be difficult to achieve if research participants are given the power to deliberatively reshape the research design as it progresses. These and other problems have tended to produce a human subjects research process where subjects do not actively participate in shaping research, but rather consent to a predefined set of interventions designed by expert researchers and vetted by Institutional Review Boards (IRBs).
In this paper, I suggest some ways in which human subjects research could do more to realize deliberative democratic values, and, in particular, how a revised Common Rule might help to realize these values. First, research participants could be treated not as passive subjects but instead involved in research design, ethical review, and the ongoing conduct and dissemination of research. Such participation might involve, for instance, including people who have served as research subjects on IRBs, or replacing IRB oversight for certain forms of research exempted from IRB oversight under a revised Common Rule with oversight by a body of community members or research subjects. It might also involve having the oversight of research that uses more participatory models be more participatory and less hierarchical in nature.
I also raise questions about the exemption of research on public benefit programs from any research-level oversight and from consent requirements. While IRBs are likely not the correct overseers, there may be good reason to view such research with a critical eye, because of its potential for long-range impacts on the lives of participants. By giving research subjects a greater voice in research that aims at fine-tuning public benefit programs on which subjects rely, a deliberative oversight process has the potential to recast research participation as a form of active democratic participation and to address a “democratic deficit” in public health. Numerous proposals regarding health care have called for greater participation by laypeople and a more nonhierarchical approach to setting health priorities. Involving lay research subjects in the conduct of public benefits research and other forms of public health research may help to further these goals.