Towards Identifying an Upper Limit of Risk: A Persistent Area of Controversy in Research Ethics

Towards Identifying an Upper Limit of Risk: A Persistent Area of Controversy in Research Ethics
Erin T. Paquette, Seema K. Shah
Perspectives in Biology and Medicine, Spring 2020; 63(2)
Whether there is an upper limit of net risk that volunteers can consent to in research, and what that limit happens to be, has been the subject of persistent controversy in research ethics. This article defends the concept of an upper limit of risk in research against recent critics and supports the most promising approach for identifying this limit, that of finding comparator activities that are generally accepted in society and pose high levels of risk. However, high-risk activities that have been proposed as relevant comparators involve more certain benefits and confer considerable social esteem to those who take on the risks. This suggests that developing a robust approach to identifying social value, whether by developing a procedural safeguard or a systematic framework, could more effectively identify research with sufficient social value to justify high net risk. Additionally, the social status of research participants should be elevated to be more on par with others who laudably take on high risk for the benefit of others. By attending to the benefits necessary for the justification of high-risk research, the level of allowable risk will no longer be so controversial.

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