17 December 2020
By Wan Nur Syazana Wan Mohamad Ariffin (University of Malaya), Dr Vikki Cheung (University of Plymouth) and Prof Lota Creencia (Western Philippines University) 

From the perspective of the Blue Communities Programme Office, we are delighted that so much progress has been made across the partnership in terms of Research Ethics.

This has demonstrated excellent capacity not only to individuals in the research teams, but also at the institutional level. In the past year, the Vietnam's Hanoi National University of Education and Indonesia's Universitas Nasional have formed their own Research Ethics Boards within their institutes. The Western Philippines University will also soon have their own Ethics Board, and in the meantime, is applying for Research Ethics approvals via the National Ethics Committee within the Philippine Council for Health Research and Development in the Department of Science and Technology. We have been lucky to have the insight from Prof. Ruth Garside (University of Exeter) to help guide us in the subject of Research Ethics, since she was previously the Chair of the College of Medicine and Health Research Ethics Committee at the University of Exeter and many thanks go to her for sharing her expertise.

Each of the four partners in Southeast Asia - Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam & Philippines - has unique learning experiences and challenges with regards to the research ethics process. This adds up to the capacity-building legacy of GCRF Blue Communities to our respective institutions and communities. Below is a narrative from our colleagues in Malaysia about their ethics journey:  
"Applying for ethics approval prior to conducting any research activities involving human participants has been an eye-opening experience for some of the members on the Blue Communities Malaysia team (BC MY). For certain disciplines, ethics might not be anything new and has become part of the norm in their research but for other disciplines, it is not something they have done before. The importance of obtaining ethics approval has been given a lack of attention in the research community in Malaysia, although it is certainly growing and becoming increasingly significant. University of Malaya (UM) has its own research ethics board known as the UM Research Ethics Committee (UMREC) that undertakes ethics review for non-medical research. There is also a Medical Research Ethics Committee (MREC) that is parked under the University of Malaya Medical Centre, responsible for reviewing medical-related research involving human participants. All of the ethics clearances for Blue Communities-related projects have been obtained from the UMREC in 2019 before kick-starting the data collections and fieldwork in Tun Mustapha Park. For the BC MY team, the ethics application is spearheaded by the Postdoctoral Research Fellows and Research Assistants involved in each individual project with guidance from the Project Leads. Personally, the process of applying for the ethics clearance, which includes preparing relevant documents according to the committee guidelines, amending the application based on feedback from co-researchers as well as the UMREC members to obtaining the approvals from the committee helped increased the capacity of the BC MY members. The experience also increased the team members’ awareness on ethical research practices that take into consideration aspects such as risk assessment, data management, privacy and confidentiality, obtaining consent from participants, as well as sensitive issues that can affect public safety and national security. Having researchers from multiple disciplines in the BC MY team fosters more interdisciplinary exchange between them and further exposes the team members to the different ethics in different disciplines." 
"In light of the COVID-19 pandemic at the start of 2020, all BC MY research activities in the field came to a halt and Malaysia went into a nationwide lockdown for nearly three months. As the COVID-19 situation remains ambiguous to date, the possible conduct of physical research activities is extremely challenging with the constant change in the Standard Operation Procedures, according to risk zone category, geographical location and restrictions by the Malaysian Government. UMREC, in this sens,e depends on the guidelines issued by the UM’s Institute of Research Management & Services (IPPP) when it comes to conducting research in the field during the pandemic. As of July 2020, UM does not allow any fieldwork or research activities to be carried out in areas that have been designated as Red and Yellow Zones (Red Zone=41 or more COVID-19 cases; Yellow Zone=1 to 40 COVID-19 cases in the period of 14 days) by the Ministry of Health. The procedures to conduct research outside in the Green Zones (Green Zone=no reported COVID-19 case in the period of 14 days) have been ramped up by the IPPP with additional approvals required to restart the fieldwork and are subject to IPPP’s approvals. Despite the increasing challenge, the BC MY team is positive the research activities can be carried out, albeit differently than before. Ethics-wise, the team will need to carefully consider the team members and stakeholders’ wellbeing, both physically and mentally, before undertaking any research activities in the upcoming months."

To return to Blue Communities News December 2020, please click here.
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