I finally read through a much-discussed paper by Stephen Ziliak and Edward Teather-Posadas, entitled “The Unprincipled Randomization Principle”.
In his post this week on ethical validity in research, Martin Ravallion writes:
“Scaled-up programs almost never use randomized assignment so the RCT has a different assignment mechanism, and this may be contested ethically even when the full program is fine.”
Yesterday, Martin Ravallion wrote a piece titled ‘Taking Ethical Validity Seriously.’ It focused on ethically contestable evaluations and used RCTs as the main (only?) example of such evaluations. It is a good piece: researchers can always benefit from questioning themselves and their work in different ways.
More thought has been given to the validity of the conclusions drawn from development impact evaluations than to the ethical validity of how the evaluations were done. This is not an issue for all evaluations. Sometimes an impact evaluation is built into an existing program such that nothing changes about how the program works. The evaluation takes as given the way the program assigns its benefits. So if the program is deemed to be ethically acceptable then this can be presumed to also hold for the method of evaluation.
While the blog was on break over the last month, a couple of posts caught my attention by discussing whether it is ethical to do experiments on programs that we think we know will make people better off. First up, Paul Farmer on the Lancet Global Health blog writes:
It is not uncommon to read about medical trials for new drugs which get stopped early because they are too successful and it would be unethical not to offer the treatment to the control group (e.g.
The latest issue of the Journal of Economic Perspectives (all content openly available online), has a symposium on the use of field experiments in economics. We’ve discussed or linked to posts on three of the four papers in previous blog posts: A paper on mechanism experiments by Ludwig, Kling and Mullainathan; a paper on the
The Telegraph has an article on seven scientific experiments that would have large pay-offs to science, but which would be completely unethical. Examples include separating twins at birth, testing new chemicals on humans, and cross-breeding a human with a chimpanzee. For each, they discuss the scientific premise, and the payoffs to science if it were to be accomplished.
The basic principles of ethical research as laid out in the Belmont Report include “respect for persons”, which stipulates that all individuals should be treated as autonomous agents. Typically this principle is translated into practice with a statement read to all study subjects concerning the voluntary nature of study participation and the freedom to withhold consent. These ethical guidelines largely derive from medical trials where individual targeting of an intervention such as an experimental drug is typical.
Last year the British Medical Journal published the results of an impact evaluation of local immunization campaigns with and without incentives in rural India. Full immunization rates were very low in the study area (2%) and the researchers wanted to test two nested approaches to improving participation in immunization campaigns.