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Data issues clogging Marie Curie ethics reviews, study suggests

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Researchers say data protection screening should be separated from ethics appraisals for EU scheme

Researchers, including staff at an agency that administers EU R&D funding, have called for data protection checks to be taken out of ethics reviews in the bloc’s flagship scheme for researcher mobility, saying data issues are taking too much time away from other ethics issues.

Looking at nearly 80,000 proposals to the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions scheme over 2014-20, Ilse De Waele and David Wizel from the Research Executive Agency and researchers Livia Puljak and Zvonimir Koporc from the Catholic University of Croatia found that data protection was among the ethics issues most often self-flagged by applicants and most often picked up by ethics reviewers.

Publishing their findings in the journal Plos One on 4 November, the researchers said data protection issues “exhaust ethics assessment efforts and may lead to ‘overkills’ in ethics requirements”. They suggested that the majority of data protection issues, other than elements directly related to informed consent, could be dealt with “in a separate process that should involve specialised experts”.

The introduction of the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation in 2018 led to a spike in data protection being flagged in ethics reviews, particularly in the Research and Innovation Staff Exchanges scheme that funds short-term visits of research and innovation personnel at all career levels, under which more than 35 per cent of proposals reported data protection issues in 2018.

The study also found differences in the awareness of ethical issues between applicants and ethics reviewers, with applicants more likely than reviewers to flag issues related to the use of animals, for example. The authors said these differences could be ironed out with better education for researchers on ethical issues, suggesting that graduate schools should include mandatory teaching of research ethics.