UKRI position statement on funding ethical research

UKRI is committed to supporting a positive research and innovation culture conducive to high-quality, ethical research and innovation, by creating healthy environments so people and ideas thrive, and through the adoption of recognised standards of conduct.

Research ethics are a central component of good research and innovation governance and relate to the various concordats to which UKRI is a signatory. Research ethics are closely linked to research integrity as described in the Concordat to Support Research Integrity.

Research integrity is the activities and attitudes of those involved in the research process as they pursue high-quality, robust, ethical research.

Our policy on the governance of good research practice requires that staff, students and any associated personnel involved in a UKRI-related research and innovation activity should:

adhere to the highest level of research ethics, in line with requirements set out by national and international regulatory bodies and legislation, professional and regulatory research guidance and research ethics frameworks issues in appropriate areas.

This includes considering ethics issues throughout the lifecycle of a research project from planning to dissemination and archiving and/or future use, and promoting a culture of ethical reflection, debate and mutual learning.

Our trusted research and innovation principles have been developed to support and safeguard effective international collaboration in research and innovation, and to ensure that it takes place with integrity and within strong ethical frameworks.

Defining research ethics

Research ethics can be defined as the moral and philosophical principles that govern how researchers and innovators should carry out their work, throughout the research and innovation lifecycle.

Research ethics takes into consideration the impacts and potential harms on:

  • research participants
  • research and innovation teams
  • broader society, the environment and animals

These principles are used to shape regulations, policies and practices, by research and innovation organisations, learned societies, funding bodies and governments.

The role of the position statement

The position statement outlines a set of high-level ethical principles drawn from existing UKRI policy and guidance across a range of areas in order to provide an overview of our approach for our stakeholders.

It is consistent with, and does not replace, existing ethics guidance and frameworks produced by individual UKRI councils where more detailed remit- and discipline-specific information can be found.

Given the breadth of research and innovation that UKRI supports there will be discipline-specific variation in how these principles will be appropriately applied, and in how they apply to academia or businesses engaged in research. There may also be additional remit- or discipline-specific principles in the guidance produced by individual UKRI councils.

UKRI recognises the complex nature of research ethics and that more work is required in consultation with stakeholders from across the research and innovation community.

We have a range of field-specific guidance and policies which support and have relevance to the high-level ethical principles outlined below, and which can be found on our good research resource hub.

In considering how this position statement relates to business-led innovation, it is vital that businesses take account of the importance of research ethics in their collaborative programmes with the research base, as well as considering the impact of the research and development (R&D) conducted in their own organisations.

This is important for ethical and societal reasons, but also because of the importance to future customers. Innovate UK’s recent development of the PAS 440 Guidance Standard for Responsible Innovation is a powerful tool that can help businesses get this balance right.

Ethical approval

UKRI does not grant formal ethical clearance for research projects as part of its grant approval processes. Responsibility for detailed ethical scrutiny and approval lies with the relevant organisation undertaking the research.

Where projects are led by staff employed by UKRI institutes and units, the responsibility will similarly rest with the employing institution.

However, the information provided by applicants about potential ethical issues and how they will be handled and mitigated throughout the research process is considered within UKRI’s peer review and assessment processes.

Standard terms and conditions for UKRI FEC grants (paragraph 3.1.1) require that applicants identify ethical issues relating to their project and bring them to the attention of the relevant review or regulatory body, securing approval before any work requiring approval begins.

Ethical approval procedures are pertinent to many existing and emerging areas of research. The UKRI policy on the governance of good research practice provides detailed information about UKRI’s expectations relating to research ethics for both researchers and research organisations.

UKRI high-level ethical principles

The following ethical principles have been developed by UKRI to set out our expectations for UKRI-funded research and innovation. They outline key areas for consideration in the development and delivery of activities throughout the research and innovation lifecycle, and identify areas of best practice.

Deliberate consideration of ethical issues, trade-offs and potential unintended consequences supports everyone working in the research and innovation system to manage risk, mitigate against possible harms and deliver higher quality outcomes.

These principles are underpinned by a series of UKRI policies and guidance which support our communities to deliver against our ethical expectations.

Research and innovation should aim to maximise benefits for individuals, the environment, society, or all of these, and minimise risk and harm

Everyone in the research and innovation community should ensure that their work is beneficial to individuals, science, society, or all collectively, and be realistic about the benefits that it is likely to deliver.

This includes the benefits to society of a healthy economy that can arise through business innovation, but minimising any negative impacts from that innovation.

The rights and dignity of individuals and groups should be respected

Research and innovation should be designed and conducted in a way that respects the rights, interests, values, dignity and, if possible, autonomy, of participants (including individuals, groups and communities).

The research and innovation community has a role to play in promoting safe research and innovation environments which are free from exploitation, abuse and bullying, and harassment for all involved.

Wherever possible, participation should be voluntary and appropriately informed

Participants should be informed that they have a right to refuse to participate, free of consequences, and can withdraw from the research for any reason. In some contexts, informed consent may not be possible or practicable.

Uninformed participation should only be used in exceptional circumstances, where no other approach is possible, where it is crucial to the research objectives and design, or where overt observation may alter the phenomenon being studied.

Research and innovation partnerships should be transparent, based on mutual respect and deliver mutual benefits

The research and innovation community should be sensitive to actual or perceived differences in income, status, or power.

They should adhere to the principles of equitable partnerships to address inherent power imbalances when working with partners, particularly public and community partners, potentially vulnerable partners, or international partners in resource-poor settings where imbalances may be more prominent. This includes all collaboration between industry and academia, and between small and large businesses.

The research and innovation community should consider equality, diversity, and inclusion in all their activities

Equality, diversity and inclusion is a critical aspect of a healthy research and innovation culture – from how research is designed and carried out, to who is involved and engaged, and understanding the diverse needs of those who benefit.

Research and innovation should only use animals if no viable non-animal alternatives exist. Appropriate consideration should be given to the 3Rs (replacement, reduction and refinement) in all research involving animals

The research and innovation community is responsible for ensuring high levels of welfare and protection of animals, and should adopt a culture of care and transparency with regard to animals.

The research and innovation community should aim to minimise harm to the environment resulting from their research and innovation activities

The research and innovation community should seek, where possible, to enhance environmental sustainability through innovation and the adoption of environmentally sustainable research practices.

Outputs from publicly funded research should be freely accessible as soon as possible under conditions that maximise reuse to amplify social, economic, environmental and research benefits

Sharing of research outputs must conform to all relevant ethical and legal obligations and conform with the principle of being as open as possible and as closed as necessary (taking into account intellectual property, commercial arrangements, and national security considerations).

Research and innovation should be conducted with transparency and integrity

Transparency means being clear about the nature of the research and innovation and communicating this to those involved and the broader public.

Integrity demands that there is a clear fit between what the research and innovation community say they will do and how they will conduct their work.

The intent with regard to transparency applies equally to business innovation but will respect the intellectual property and any potential national security considerations.

Lines of responsibility and accountability should be clearly defined and effectively communicated

The research and innovation community must exercise self-critical responsibility in the planning and conduct of their work. Research ethics committees and research organisations have a responsibility to guide and support researchers, especially when the research involves navigating complex ethical dilemmas.

The research community should maintain the independence of their research and where conflicts of interest cannot be avoided they should be made explicit

Independence of research is founded on academic credentials, professional standards, expertise and experience. It is free from personal, organisational and political bias, dishonesty and considerations of gain, and should be safeguarded at all times.

While business innovation will often seek to have an economic impact, and may be influenced by organisational and political context, the other principles in this statement should apply.

Last updated: 23 June 2023

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