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An ERC funded pilot to support people to increase their power to meet their needs

Case study: Ethical considerations for a social experiment

A cart and bins filled with rubbish, located at the side of a street
Millions of informal labourers pick and sort rubbish across India every day. Could UBI+ make their lives better?

Dr Neil Howard, Department of Social & Policy Sciences, describes the research ethics of a European Research Council (ERC) funded trial he is currently leading.

About the study

Our project trials unconditional basic income (UBI) and needs-focussed participatory action research (a combination we call UBI+) in four slum communities in Hyderabad, India. The pilot began in 2022 and will run for 18 months. Throughout the study, we are seeking to answer a wide range of questions, including ‘What impact does UBI+ have on people’s freedom from exploitation?’ and ‘Can UBI+ support the green transition?’

Ethical issues to consider

  • Informed consent of participants
  • Managing power differentials
  • Anonymity of participants
  • The right to withdraw
  • Duty of care and avoidance of harm
  • Data security/storage
  • Working across different cultures and in different countries
  • Working with external organisations

Mitigating actions

  • Detailed risk assessment to ensure duty of care to participants
  • Participatory work with community members and social partners to mitigate emerging risks
  • Ensuring that participants were carefully informed and fully free to choose whether or not to participate
  • Putting formal policies in place to deal with unexpected findings and to pause or terminate the project if found to be causing harm to participants
  • Creation and maintenance of a Data Management Plan
  • Obtaining ethical opinion, appointing an independent Ethics Advisor, and establishing an Ethics Advisory Board

Lessons learnt

Social experimentation can be risky and requires robust ethical oversight. Due to the nature of the project and the power relations inherent to experimentation, there is an increased risk of causing harm to the participants. Therefore, there was deservedly a high level of scrutiny of the processes and protocols that we were putting in place, with the ERC’s review board procedures an example of best practice.

We needed to be able to demonstrate that we were approaching our research with utmost care and consideration for the welfare of participants. We needed to show that we were putting procedures in place to mitigate for, prevent, and if necessary, handle any emerging issues. There were an enormous amount of ‘what-if’ scenarios that we needed to work through. We had to demonstrate that we had thought out all potential eventualities of the project to several ethics boards (the European Research Council, the Social Science Research Ethics Committee at the University of Bath and the IRB of the Institute of Financial Research and Management at Krea University, India).

Going through the ethics review process was a highly rewarding experience. The whole system is about helping you as a researcher to consider and scrutinise all the ethical issues and potential consequences of your research. My experience of going through the review processes with this project has served to inform many other research projects that I am involved in, and indeed my work on SSREC and as my Department’s Research Ethics Officer.

You can learn more about our project and our approach to ethics here:

Further reading

WorkFREE: What can cash transfers contribute to the fight for decent work?

Find out more about research integrity and ethics

Click here

This case study, edited by Helen Friend, is part of a collection outlining the experiences of researchers from the University of Bath in relation to research ethics. The researchers describe the ethical issues that arose during their research projects, the mitigating actions they took and the lessons that they learnt. More case studies can be found here. We gratefully acknowledge support from Research England through the Enhancing Research Culture Fund (ERCP).