A unique feature of most disaster research is the urgency to start a quick response study in the immediate aftermath of the event.
The desire to collect perishable data—information that may be lost or subject to recall bias at a later date—leads many hazards and disaster researchers to quickly develop protocols and study materials so that they can begin data collection right away.1 But entering the field too soon during or after a disaster can lead to a number of ethical repercussions for affected populations and the research community.2
Disasters wreak havoc on communities, causing catastrophic destruction, injury, displacement, and death. Researchers must decide when to enter the field by balancing their research goals with the physical and emotional state of the affected population.3,4 Without agreed upon timelines to start conducting disaster research, researchers must use their professional judgement to determine if populations will be further harmed by participating in research too soon after the event.
Entering a disaster zone when the impact of the event is still unfolding may place the researcher in harm’s way. For example, if infrastructure was damaged and has not yet been stabilized, then visiting the affected area may be considered dangerous. Indirect consequences of the disaster, such as rapid spread of disease, can also influence the safety of surroundings. Following the Haiti earthquake in 2010, the influx of foreigners and a damaged sanitation infrastructure led to the cholera epidemic that killed thousands of people.5
Furthermore, conducting a study while rescue efforts are still underway has the potential to interfere with life-saving disaster response activities. Although researchers may not intend to inflict harm on study participants, their research practices may directly compete with essential time and resources needed during the response.6 When multiple researchers are in the field at the same time as first responders who are offering assistance, it can lead to unnecessary confusion among disaster survivors about who is there to provide aid.7 For these and other reasons, deciding how soon after an event to enter the field is an important ethical consideration that arises during the study design phase.
Ethical Dilemmas the Field
Excerpt from Taylor’s Review and Conduct of Human Subjects Research after a Natural or Man–Made Disaster: Findings from a Pilot Study:
“We were literally bumping into them in some of the trailer parks there. You know, we would just—we’d literally be seeing another team out in the field, and we’d figure out who they were. A lot of times, they were medical service providers, social service providers. Occasionally, they were research teams. We definitely came—it was definitely a problem for us in that our research team would be misidentified by the respondents, and then if—you know, I tended to think that we were operating at a very professional level. And so when some other study would promise something and not deliver it, and then they would look at us and think we were part of that, we definitely were suffering from the confusion.”7
1.Gaillard J, Gomez C. Post-disaster research: Is there gold worth the rush? Jàmbá: Journal of Disaster Risk Studies. 2015;7(1). doi:10.4102/jamba.v7i1.120
2.Gaillard J, Peek L. Disaster-zone research needs a code of conduct. Nature. Published online November 20, 2019:440-442. doi:10.1038/d41586-019-03534-z
3.Nuffield Council on Bioethics. Research in Global Health Emergencies. Nuffield Council on Bioethics; 2020:1-308. https://www.nuffieldbioethics.org/publications/research-in-global-health-emergencies
4.Packenham JP, Rosselli RT, Ramsey SK, et al. Conducting science in disasters: Recommendations from the NIEHS Working Group for Special IRB Considerations in the Review of Disaster Related Research. Environmental Health Perspectives. 2017;125(9). doi:10.1289/EHP2378
5.Barzilay EJ, Schaad N, Magloire R, et al. Cholera surveillance during the Haiti epidemic—The first 2 years. New England Journal of Medicine. 2013;368(7). doi:10.1056/NEJMoa1204927
6.Kelman I. Operational ethics for disaster research. International Journal of Mass Emergencies and Disasters. 2005;23(3):141-158.
7.Taylor HA. Review and conduct of human subjects research after a natural or man–made disaster: Findings from a pilot study. Narrative Inquiry in Bioethics. 2016;6(3). doi:10.1353/nib.2016.0061