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The Daily Tar Heel

Editorial: The Master Plan and UNC's research ethics

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has been ranked the sixth most innovative university in the world, being recognized for groundbreaking research and impactful projects. However, with great power and recognition comes great responsibility.

UNC is a top-ranked public R1 research university and, along with the College of Arts and Sciences, houses five major health affairs schools: medicine, public health, pharmacy, dentistry and nursing. The University and the five on-campus hospitals drive the $1 billion spent nearly every year for research activity. 

UNC’s Master Plan, approved this summer, calls for South Campus to develop into a research and entrepreneurship-focused community as the University looks to double the size of its research program. 

Anna Wu, the associate vice chancellor for Facility Services, mentions the plans for new buildings across campus to support the continuous investment into physical, biomedical and computational science research.

Being at the forefront of research initiatives also means that the individuals and groups are facing the challenge of identifying and adhering to new research ethics. UNC has a variety of offices and resources available for tackling this issue, including the Office of Human Research Ethics and the Institutional Review Board. This board serves to review projects, protocols and studies before their execution. Their goal is to ensure that all procedures are acceptable under today’s research ethics and expectations.

However, with the quick expansion of research efforts and projects, it’s difficult to catch everything, and UNC has definitely struggled as of late. Earlier this month, the University was faced with an official complaint with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The complaint detailed 65 instances of mistreatment of lab animals, involving improper animal handling and unqualified personnel. 

Similar complaints have been filed to multiple other institutions, including the University of Alaska Fairbanks and Harvard Medical School, each facing hefty fines. Following this, the University released a statement that they had “conducted a thorough review and instituted corrective actions to prevent similar incidents in the future.”

In another instance this month, UNC’s Matthew Gfeller Sports-Related Traumatic Brain Injury Research Center came under scrutiny for failing to disclose information about UNC football players. The athletes, who were also research participants, were diagnosed with ADHD or learning disorders and their medication statuses were not properly disclosed. By hiding this information, the authors of the research paper were able to make their work seem more accessible to other populations. 

The Gfeller Center is known as one of the nation’s leading concussion research institutions, and other universities base their own research on its studies. Due to this, the distortion of research findings here at UNC have the potential to contaminate and affect other research studies all over the country. This, in turn, effectively tarnishes UNC’s reputation as an R1 research school and questions the reliability and replicability of future research that is produced here in Chapel Hill.

Research, although it may not seem like it, is a team sport. Primary investigators, scientists and technicians design experiments and produce results to share with the larger scientific community. They progress the knowledge of science into accessible and comprehensible outcomes, such as novel therapeutics, new treatment plans and even other scientific studies. 

In order to protect the integrity of research and keep UNC as one of the most innovative institutions in the country, it is imperative that the administration fund research ethics offices proportionally to any new research projects and efforts. In addition to the current boards that oversee projects before and during the execution, developing an internal review board to catch distortion and bias in completed papers and reports can help prevent another scandal and create a system that can boost the quality, relevance and reliability of all research.

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