Continuing our series of articles from the American Political Science Association’s Comparative Democratization Section, Newsletter, today we present the following article on the “Ethical Challenges of Embedded Experimentation” by Macartan Humphreys of Columbia University. Since posting the first article from the newsletter on Monday, I have subsequently learned that the entire newsletter is free and publicly available on the website of National Endowment for Democracy. So you can find the entire Humphreys article there in .pdf format, as well as all the other articles in the newsletter. Humphreys’ piece is part of a symposium in the newsletter on the use of experiments in studying democratization.
Consider a dilemma. You are collaborating with an organization that is sponsoring ads to inform voters of corrupt practices by politicians in a random sample of constituencies. The campaign is typical of ones run by activist NGOs and no consent is sought among populations as to whether they wish to have the ads placed on billboards in their neighborhoods. You learn that another NGO is planning to run a similar campaign of its own in the same area. Worse (from a research perspective) the other organization would like to target “your” control areas so that they too can make an informed decision on their elected representatives. This would destroy your study, effectively turning it from a study of the effect of political information into a study of the differences in the effects of information interventions as administered by two different NGOs. The organizations ask you whether the new group should work in the control areas (even though it undermines the research) or instead quit altogether (and in doing so, protecting the research but possibly preventing needy populations from having access to important information on their representatives). What should you advise? Should you advise anything?
Consider a tougher dilemma. You are interested in the dynamics of coordination in protest groups. You are contacted by a section of the police that is charged with deploying water cannons to disperse protesters. The police are interested in the effectiveness of water cannons and want to partner with a researcher to advise on how to vary the use of water cannons for some random set of protest events (you could for example propose a design that reduces the use of water cannons in a subset of events and examine changes to group organization). As with the first dilemma there is clearly no intention to seek consent from the subjects—in this case the protesters—as to whether they want to be shot at. Should you partner with the police and advise them on the use of water cannons in order to learn about the behavior of non-consenting subjects?
These seem like impossible choices. But choices of this form arise regularly in the context of a mode of “embedded” experimentation that has gained prominence in recent years in which experimental research is appended to independent interventions by governments, politicians, NGOs, or others, sometimes with large humanitarian consequences.
The particular problem here is that the researcher is taking actions that may have major, direct, and possibly adverse effects on the lives of others. As discussed below, in these embedded field experiments, these actions are often taken without the consent of subjects; a situation which greatly magnifies the ethical difficulties.
In this essay I discuss the merits and demerits of “embedded” experimentation of this form that is undertaken without subject consent. I compare the approach to one in which researchers create and control interventions that have research as their primary purpose and in which consent may be more easily attained (in the terminology of Harrison and List these two approaches correspond broadly to the “natural field experiment” and the “framed field experiment” approach).