Assessing risk and harm
Formal risk assessment
Most institutions now require that research projects have formal ‘risk assessments’ carried out before a project officially starts. At the stage of preparing your proposal, it is a good idea to check what your institution requires, and have a look at the form or forms that you need to fill in. Some funders, such as government departments, also require risk assessments to be included with proposals.
It’s a good idea to ask advice from a research manager in your institution, a research supervisor, or an experienced colleague who has filled out a risk assessment form before.
Ethics questions in assessing risk and harm
In terms of ethics questions, assessing risk is not simply a procedural requirement – rather, you need to reflect on three key questions in relation to your planned project:
- What is ‘harm’?
- What is ‘risk’?
- What are the potential benefits?
There are risks, harms, costs and benefits that arise in social research, and these need to be assessed, for two reasons:
- Assessments enable researchers, reviewers, and funders to decide whether the research is worth doing at all, and whether it could be made less risky.
- Later these assessments help the people you are inviting to take part in your study make an informed decision. Informed consent is the legal means of transferring responsibility for risk-taking from the researcher to the participant. It is useful to think about harm-benefit during the early stages of planning a study, when it is still fairly easy to redesign the study to reduce risks.
‘Harm’ is often invisible and elusive, complicated by differing estimations and differing viewpoints – the researcher’s and the participants’ standpoints.
Much of the ethics regulation in the UK arose through debates in medical research, and concern about institutional liability for researcher conduct. The serious physical harm that can result through medical research has lead to understandably tight controls on the ethical procedures of research.
Many social researchers see their work as largely benign, or at least harmless in comparison to research in medical settings. However, people who review the ethics of social research – whether for funders or in ethics committees – are unlikely to agree with that perspective. Rather, the risks and potential harm arising from social science research are different in nature from those involved in, say, pharmaceutical trials.
Risk-benefit analysis is also often misunderstood. It is sometimes assumed that the process involves something like the following: ‘You weigh up the benefits the study will bring and the risks it presents. If the benefits are greater than the risks, then it is ok to do the study’. However, the process is much more complicated than this, and we advise that you work through the questions in this section.