Good plan?

When you are planning your project, completing an ethical checklist will help you identify whether something you intend to do raises ethical concerns. If it does, then your plan will not be acceptable and you will need to rethink it

Case study 3: Anaesthetic

Dermot’s ambition was to study chemistry or pharmacology at university. In the initial research for his EPQ, he found that a compound used in local anaesthetics could be synthesised using apparatus and chemicals available in his school. He thought it would be interesting to compare methods, so he carried out a health and safety risk assessment and his teacher agreed that he could make the compound in the school laboratory. His main aim was to find the best way to make the compound.

Dermot then suggested that he could test the compound by applying it to people’s skin – his own, and some of his friends’. His teacher said no. He then thought he could work out a way of testing it on some pet mice. Again his teacher said no.

In discussions with his teacher, Dermot changed his plan so that he could still go ahead with the laboratory synthesis but found other ways to evaluate his methods without testing the compound on people or animals. He used chemical tests to determine the purity of his samples so that he could calculate the yield obtained using the different methods. He interviewed a dentist about merits and drawbacks of different types of local anaesthetic, and a visit to a local pharmaceutical company gave him valuable information for his report. 

Dermot’s teacher was absolutely correct to forbid the tests on people and mice. Any sort of testing on living subjects carries health and safety risks as well as raising issues about consent. Professional researchers wishing to carry out tests on living subjects have to obey very strict rules in order to be granted a licence. There is no way that such a licence would be granted to an EPQ student, so if you are considering doing anything similar to what Dermot suggested, don’t even think about it.

Case study 4: Care home

Florence hoped to become a nurse, and she had a weekend job in a care home for people with dementia. For her EPQ, she decided to draw on her work experience and study an aspect of dementia. Her first idea was to look at the residents’ medical records and see whether there were any patterns in their medical history that might relate to the date when their dementia was diagnosed. When she mentioned this to the home manager and her EPQ supervisor, they both said no immediately. They pointed out that medical records are confidential and would not be available to her.

Florence then suggested a different project. She had noticed that some of the residents seemed more alert at certain times of day, and thought she could design tests to see if there really was a difference. She had some ideas for simple memory and recognition tests that could be presented like games so the residents would not find them distressing. The manager and her EPQ supervisor were supportive. They gave her advice about doing research with vulnerable people and obtaining informed consent.

The residents themselves could not give consent, so Florence explained her project to the relatives who were responsible for them. She wrote a document explaining how she would work with them and how she would collect and store the data, ensuring that it was secure, and stating that all her findings would be reported anonymously. The manager approved the document, the relatives signed the consent form and Florence went ahead with her project.

Work experience can provide a good starting-point for project work. It is important to remember that, in a workplace, you must behave professionally, just like people who work there as their main job and hold more senior positions. You might have access to confidential information, and you need to respect that – even if Florence had been able to see medical records, it would not have been ethical for her to use them in her project.

Activity 5: Ethical checklist

For this activity you will need the ethical checklist provided in the downloadable resources section below.

First, look at each question in turn and explain why it is important. Refer to the three ethical frameworks to help explain your reasoning.

Now use the checklist to analyse the projects described in case studies 1–4. Work through the checklist and identify any questions where the student would have had to answer ‘no’, either at the initial planning stage of the project or later. For case studies 1 and 2, suggest how the students might modify their research. For case studies 3 and 4, explain how changes of plan helped address ethical issues. 

Downloadable resources

About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘Go Further: A practical guide to extended science projects’ in October 2016.

Statistics and maths, Careers, Psychology
Go Further: A practical guide to extended science projects
Education levels:
16–19, Independent research projects, Continuing professional development