In today’s Hoyden Journalwatch: Adelaide bioethics researchers found that human research ethics committee chairs in Australia were unaware of issues of sexism in scientific research.
The research, published in today’s Medical Journal of Australia, consisted of interviews with 25 chairs of Australian Human Research Ethics Committees (HRECs) in the last twelve months.
The researchers aimed to investigate the views of these chairs about “the role of HRECs in identifying sex discrimination, monitoring the inclusion of men and women in clinical research, and interpreting and applying National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) guidelines relating to fair inclusion in research.”
The chairs, on the whole, took a laissez-faire attitude, not so much as asking for information about the sex of participants in proposed research. Not even one HREC had so much as an application-form question about the sex of participants, and none require reporting of participants’ sex.
Worse, they were ignorant of issues of institutionalised sexism in medical research: most didn’t even believe that sexism in research was a significant problem, and they were unfamiliar with debates around scientific sexism. None had been involved in consultation regarding fair inclusion. Only four of the 25 raised the possible applicability of anti-discrimination regulations to research when asked about legal requirements regarding sex equity.
A few comments from the ethics committee chairs:
I’m sure if there was a [bias] in some way, someone would have picked it up in our committee. — Frank
I don’t think it’s ever come up, but I certainly think the committee would deal with it if it did. A researcher that was aiming at studying males or females only, for no good reason, would probably be rejected. — Victor
I’m not sure that, you know, being a human guinea pig is just such an honour that, you know, women are queuing up to not be discriminated against or males are queuing up to not be discriminated against. — Wendy
It is more unethical to have no research than to have gender [in]equality research. — Sam
Because, you know, at the end of the day, it’s probably better someone was studied rather than no [one]. — Jason
Bear in mind that exclusion from research does not only mean that women may be arbitrarily excluded from trials of substances or protocols that could do them harm. It also means that women with severe, possibly terminal diseases may be systematically excluded with from trials of experimental treatments that may be their only hope, with impunity and without oversight. It also means that studies of basic physiology may exclude women, instead only focussing on “default”, “homogeneous” male bodies.
I find it particularly alarming that HREC chairs are profoundly ignorant of basic issues and debates relating to social justice in scientific research.
 “Fair inclusion of men and women in Australian clinical research: views from ethics committee chairs”
Angela J Ballantyne, Wendy A Rogers on behalf of the Australian Gender Equity in Health Research Group
MJA 2008; 188 (11): 653-656 [free registration required.]
Hormone Replacement Therapy and Breast Cancer
In other news, and in a damn good argument for clinical trials with female subjects, age-standardised invasive breast cancer incidence in post-menopausal women in Australia dropped 6.7% from 2001-2003 . This occurred at a time when hormone replacement therapy (HRT) prescriptions dropped by 40% after the results of the Women’s Health Initiative research revealed the correlation between HRT and breast cancer diagnosis. There was no significant change in breast cancer incidence in younger women. The authors conclude that the available evidence is consistent with a causal relationship between HRT and breast cancer.
A close look at the charts shows that breast cancer incidence appears to have been on the increase just prior to 2001. I recall heavy blanket marketing of HRT to general practitioners in the late 1990s, which is consistent with the rapidly rising prescriptions in the prescriptions graph. I’d really like to see more recent data.
 “Decrease in breast cancer incidence following a rapid fall in use of hormone replacement therapy in Australia”
Karen Canfell, Emily Banks, Aye M Moa and Valerie
MJA 2008; 188 (11): 641-644