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Ethics and Public Engagement – Should we worry ?

  • Posted by Marcia Hughes on: 29/09/2014

I recently took part in a lunchtime seminar with a group of academics from Leeds University to discuss ethics and public engagement. The event was organised by ‘pepnet’- a network set up in 2013 to connect staff across Leeds Uni, helping them to share ideas and experiences as well as learn more about the importance of public engagement activities.
Focussing on ethics proved extremely thought-provoking. Split into small groups we worked through the same scenario entitled ‘Yorkshire Brains’ based on a real life two-day public event held at a local museum and organised by a partnership of Life Sciences research academics and a national brain charity. Targeted at all sections of the community from 5 to 105, one of the main aims of this event was to share the Faculty’s research into degenerative brain diseases with a diverse non-academic audience, giving visitors the opportunity to try out research equipment and techniques, including examining brain sections under microscopes. Highlighting the ethical issues involved fuelled much debate and diverse opinion. What sort of permission do you need for the public to look at human tissue? Is it okay to charge visitors to take part in such an event? How should you inform those attending that some of the data collated from the event could be used in future research? What to do and whose responsibility is it to ensure children don’t wander off from parents to interact and use equipment?
Plenty to mull over and there were lessons to be learned. In our eagerness to collaborate with external partners and connect with non-academic audiences, it’s easy for some safeguarding issues to fall under the radar. So it does makes sense, when planning an event, to put ethics firmly on the check list in order to carefully weigh up potential public pitfalls. It’s also well worth consulting the guidelines and safeguarding policies of your own institution. Forewarned is forearmed and it goes a long way in making sure you’re not lying awake at night worrying about your next event.

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