This week we have a joint Spotlight, featuring Professor Lynn Ang (Institute of Education) and Professor Michael Heinrich (School of Pharmacy). Both are Chairs of the UCL Research Ethics Committee, which they chat to us about here.
What is your role and what does it involve?
1. Research Ethics Focus
We have been Chairs of UCL Research Ethics Committee (REC) since 2016. It is a privilege to undertake this complex and exciting role, as research ethics is so fundamental to UCL’s mission as a world-class institution dedicated to the continued pursuit of knowledge and scientific advancement to benefit humanity and the world of the future.
We are proud to lead a UCL-wide multi-faculty committee of 12 academic members (including a co-opted member from UCL’s MRC Clinical Trials Unit) some of whom are supported by other academics within their faculty. Also, and importantly we have four ’lay’ members, representing a third of the Committee. All committee members work in different fields and disciplines who are dedicated to upholding the highest ethical standards of research that promote the values of transparency, accountability, mutual respect, and fairness. These high standards are essential for ensuring the highest quality of research at UCL.
We are supported by:
- a sterling team in the UCL Research Integrity and Ethics Team within the Office for the Vice-Provost Research (OVPR) comprising Helen Dougal, Dr Magdalena Morawska, Cat Collins and Lola Alaska who are led by the Head of Research Integrity, Rowena Lamb.
- Volunteer experts from across UCL research community who generously volunteer their time and experience in order to ensure that all ethical issues and participants’ interests in any project is considered in detail.
As Chairs who lead the main ethics approval body for all UCL research outside of the NHS, we review over 700 low and high-risk applications yearly in conjunction with the REC and the OVPR team, working closely with students and researchers across UCL.
We have overall responsibility for UCL research ethics, which is, needless to say, a complex task. As Chairs, we are always impressed by the breadth and scale of UCL research spanning the medical sciences to education and the social/cultural sciences. However, ethics is also an area where there are lots of uncertainties and ambiguities. We often have to adjudicate difficult and sensitive issues to ensure that research is conducted ethically. We always take a measured approach in-consultation with research teams to balance the risk between encouraging innovative disruptive research and fostering a supportive environment for UCL research community and participants to benefit from ground-breaking scientific work.
Lynn: I feel an immense responsibility in leading such an important institutional function as research ethics. The role comes with a high degree of accountability and the volume of ethics applications we review is demanding but I love my role as Chair! It is such an exciting role that connects me with researchers and staff across all eleven UCL faculties, external partners and the wider public. One of the most rewarding parts of my role is working with exceptional people including academics and professional services colleagues who are fully committed to ethics. I get to work with some world-leading scientists to support their research and despite the intensity of our work, we always place integrity at the heart of everything we do. The dedication of colleagues on the UCL REC, UCL Integrity and Ethics Team and UCL research community is simply inspirational.
Michael: Raising the profile of ethics at UCL and facilitating research has been a keen driver for my engagement together with Lynn Ang. Research questions are complex and it is our task as researchers to see the perspective of those we work with as participants. Hopefully we all see research ethics not only as a way of empowering participants and to give them a free choice, but also as a way to ascertain that we as researchers contribute ’to excellence, innovation and the promotion of global understanding in all our activities: research, teaching, learning, enterprise and community engagement’. (UCL 2034)
2. Research Focus
In our daily work, we are based at the Institute of Education (Professor Lynn Ang) and the School of Pharmacy (Professor Michael Heinrich). Professor Lynn Ang is Head of Department of the Department of Learning and Leadership. Our research interests are very different - children (Lynn) and medicinal plants - ethnopharmacology (Michael), but we share a passion for real-world research and changing people’s lives for the better especially in fast developing nations in the Global South.
Lynn: My research interest is in the interdisciplinary studies of early childhood and international development, and children’s learning across cultures particularly in South East Asia and the Asia-Pacific region. I am interested in the social, cultural and policy influences on children’s education and development in a range of formal and informal contexts such as preschools, schools and home-based settings.
Michael: In my case the focus is on the use, potential benefits and risks and the associated chemistry and pharmacology of medicinal plants (ethnopharmacology). For many years the group worked on understanding local uses of plants in indigenous communities, most notably in México, Guatemala and Spain, but also other regions as well as on anti-inflammatory natural products. More recently, my group’s research has centred on value chains of herbal medicines in a globalized context (incl. their impacts on livelihood and quality of products) and on the use of herbal medicines in the management of chronic diseases.
How long have you been at UCL and what was your previous role?
Lynn: I have worked at UCL IOE for almost nine years now. Previously, I was based at another London University for ten years when I also led the Research Ethics Committee.
Michael: I have been at the School of Pharmacy since 1999, and in 2012 the School became a part of UCL. Prior to this, I was working at the School of Chemistry and Pharmacy of the University of Freiburg, Germany.
What working achievement or initiative are you most proud of?
Lynn: I am most proud of my work in the field of early childhood and primary education working with teachers, children and families on impact-driven research using participatory and ethical methodological approaches. The culmination of my work led to a special invitation at a high level Ministerial event at the United Nations General Assembly in 2018 on the ’Leave no girl behind’ campaign, and a keynote lecture on the Global Agenda for Early Childhood Education at the 60th Anniversary Conference of the Commonwealth Secretariat, Marlborough House, London in January 2020.
Michael: The research team has very often been at the forefront of developing novel concepts and approaches generally integrating different disciplines and their conceptual models. In the last years, we first systematically developed the concept of value chains for ascertaining equitable benefit sharing good quality of products and safety of herbal medicines, and more recently we have started to explore blockchain systems as tools for achieving such benefits.
Tell us about a project you are working on now which is top of your to-do list?
Lynn: One of the exciting projects I am working on is a UKRI-GCRF Action Against Stunting Research Hub. This is a large-scale interdisciplinary project involving 18 institutions in the UK, India, Indonesia and Senegal. The project tackles the most intractable global challenge of child stunting by seeking to prevent stunting and provide solutions for those children already impacted by it and who face the challenge of cognitive and education impediment.
Michael: One project we started a few months before the labs had to be shut looks at plants to be used in the treatment of chronic wounds and skin infections. We will use medicinal plants commonly used in China and also in Europe and - together with colleagues from the University of Zurich, we will try to understand how they work and what the active preparations are. It is an exciting one, and we now need to think how can we get the activities back on track
What is your favourite album, film and novel?
Lynn: I enjoy an eclectic array of films and music including travel and nature documentaries such as The Blue Planet and Silk Road Adventure. When I get the time I enjoy a good old mystery drama such as Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot. I also enjoy orchestral music concerts.
Michael: Yunupingu - Wiyathul by the blind Australian indigenous singer and poet Geoffrey Gurrumul and any form of marimba music from México or Guatemala.
What is your favourite joke (pre-watershed)?
Lynn: What did the baby horse say when he had only leg? I am a one trick pony.
Michael: Well, as is amply known in Britain, a German has no sense of humour, so how would I dare to respond!
Who would be your dream dinner guests?
Lynn and Michael: This has to be a joint party. We would like to have all our friends and great colleagues in a wonderful garden party with a lot to talk about with home-made foods, cultural cuisine, wine and sunshine.
What advice would you give your younger self?
Lynn: Enjoy your youth as life passes all too quickly as one gets older!
Michael: Keep calm and enjoy all the exciting options of life (I certainly did the second of the two parts).
What would it surprise people to know about you?
Lynn: I play the piano.
Michael: Let me respond with Paul Feyerabend (Against Methods) regarding my views: "Science is essentially an anarchic enterprise: theoretical anarchism is more humanitarian and more likely to encourage progress than its law-and-order alternatives."
What is your favourite place?
Lynn: Being home with my children and family.
Michael: Any forest or woodland or a (London) park ideally in spring or autumn.