X-rays, aslyum seekers and research ethics/governance

By David Hunter

There is an interesting story here: in the Guardian about a research trial being carried out by the UK border agency using dental x-rays to try and identify the age of young asylum seekers.

The focus of the article is that the UKBA has started a pilot of the trial without waiting for formal approval from a Research Ethics Committee (although it has applied for one). If this is correct then it appears the UKBA has broken the law, given that research involving ionising radiation is fairly strictly regulated and needs to reviewed by an approved committee before it can be started.

However I have some sympathy for the UKBA here, since I suspect part of their neglect of the regulations is ignorance based on the assumption that seems to underwrite research ethics regulation in the UK and most other countries – namely that only medical research is risky enough to need regulation – and this of course isn’t “medical research” since it is being carried out by the UKBA…

This assumption is clearly false – while on the whole non-medical research might be less physically risky than medical research this doesn’t doesn’t make it risk free. Nor should we think that physical harms are the only risks that should trigger regulation, at the very least flagrant violations of informed consent also ought to be regulated.

We would be better I think to simply regulate research rather than regulate some bits of research, in a haphazard and piecemeal fashion.

Back to the case at hand however, I have to agree with the pundits who are deploring this trial in terms of its policy implications. Even if consent is required given the stakes it could hardly be seen as freely given in this case…

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