IRB: Ethics & Human Research

The Ethics of Net-Risk Pediatric Research: Implications of Valueless and Harmful Studies

Abstract: Net-risk pediatric research encompasses interventions and studies that pose risks and do not offer a compensating potential for clinical benefit. These interventions and studies are central to efforts to improve pediatric clinical care. Yet critics argue that it is unethical to expose children to research risks for the benefit of unrelated others. While a number of ethical justifications have been proposed, none have received widespread acceptance. This leaves funders with uncertainty over whether they should support and institutional review boards with uncertainty over whether they should approve net-risk pediatric research. To try to answer these questions, this article describes a justification that I previously proposed and considers two objections to it. This analysis reveals that the opportunity to contribute to a valuable project can justify exposing children to risks even though some trials turn out to be valueless and others turn out to be harmful. It follows that, to protect pediatric participants, institutional review boards need to assess whether trials have the potential to collect socially valuable information and whether they are likely to enroll and retain a sufficient number of participants.

Keywords: human subjects research, research on vulnerable populations, net-risk pediatric research, minimal risk in pediatric research, valueless research studies, harmless research studies