Here we are in March and I am still awaiting that mythical thing called ethics approval. What is this phenomenon I keep alluding to? I guess after a month, it’s time I explain.
What do I mean when I say I need “ethics approval?”
As a Fulbrighter, I am hosted by Victoria University of Wellington. I am treated as visiting “staff” and as a result, have access to many of the University resources. I am able to take classes at the university and have been given an adviser to help guide my inquiry project. However, since I am affiliated with the university, I also have to abide by their research guidelines. Like all universities, Victoria requires that any research involving human participants be reviewed by an ethics committee before beginning. So, when I say I am still waiting for ethics approval, I mean that I am still waiting for that committee to give me permission to begin researching.
What’s the point of ethics approval?
The purpose is to ensure that all research conforms to high ethical standards. The ethics committee will review my plan to check for things such as: minimization of harm to participants, respect and care to participants, participants can provide free and fully informed consent, respect and care to different cultures, responsible research practices, etc. This all sounds pretty simple, right? You’d think so. In reality, there is a detailed fourteen-page document outlining the ethical guidelines that must be followed. If you find yourself super interested in human ethics….it is here .
What did I have to submit?
I had to submit a ten-page application outlining the details of my research. This included the goals of my research, its scholarly merit, and the purpose of my research. I had to outline my research steps (e.g. interviews, observations, etc.), what types of participants I’d recruit, how many I’d recruit, and how I would recruit participants. I then had to detail how I would protect participants throughout the process. For example, how would I ensure that they had informed consent before participating? Are they able to drop out of the study and is that clear? How will I maintain confidentiality? How will data be stored? Will I give participants access to transcripts from the interviews? After filling out the extensive application, I had to upload a series of documents for review. These included information sheets and consent forms for each participant type (in my case: principals, teachers, parents, ministry representatives). I also had to write interview questions for each participant type and upload those as well.
Why does getting ethics approval take so long?
The ethics committee only meets once a month. We were told at orientation that we needed to have our applications in by February 26 for them to be reviewed at the next meeting. The next meeting is not until March 12. Luckily, the ethics committee has started reviewing the Fulbright applications early, as many of us have already received emails about corrections.
Corrections? I must make corrections?
Yes. Apparently, the committee is known for never approving applications right away. They always find something that needs correcting. I’ve been told that they are known to even get caught up on word choice. Luckily, once you make corrections, they will review your resubmitted application between meetings. So, we should not have to wait until April for them to review our resubmissions.
Where am I in this process?
I submitted my application several weeks ago. On Friday, I got an email that my application had been reviewed and corrections were needed. I was given instructions to log in and view the committee’s comments. When I logged in there were no comments. I emailed them and was told there was a technical issue that they were looking into and they should be able to get my comments to me shortly. I haven’t heard anything since. I did send a follow up email after three days asking about the status of the technical issue, but I did not receive a reply. I do know that some other Fulbrighters are also waiting for replies and/or technical issues to be fixed, so I am trying to be patient.
What am I doing until I get ethics approval?
Fulbright and Victoria University made it clear that we cannot research prior to gaining approval. If we do meet with people, we can’t use any of that information in our inquiry project. So, I have been working on making contacts so that when I get approval, I am ready to go. I have been emailing with principals, educators, and government officials. I already have several schools lined up. I have started meeting with principals just to informally say hello and get to know them and the school. I have attended professional development, and I have an extensive list of books I want to read while I am here. I have spent time at the library reading more about the New Zealand education system and the structure of special education.
Of course, I’ve also been exploring. After hopping around the South Island in January, I spent all of February in Wellington. Upon realizing this, I decided I need to start hitting the road again. So, this past weekend, some Fulbright friends and I took a weekend trip to Picton, a small town on the northern tip of the South Island. (Calm down, Elijah had to fly back to the US for two weeks…I didn’t just desert him).
The draw of Picton is really the mode of transportation to get there. Sure, you can hop on a plane to the South Island. But if you want the scenic view it is best to take the Interislander Ferry from Wellington to Picton. The Interislander is, you guessed it, a ferry boat. The trip takes 3.5 hours and is absolutely stunning. The ferry crosses the Cook Strait and the Marlborough Sounds. We left Friday evening, which meant the sun was going down as we went through the sounds. The views were breath taking.
In Picton, we wandered around the small town going in cute shops and exploring a craft market. We took a hike up a mountain to admire the view of Picton and the harbor. We spent hours at one of the harbor side cafes drinking wine, eating delicious food, and enjoying the gorgeous weather. Then, we went back to our odd little Airbnb and marveled in their eclectic assortment of books, which included both Will Smith’s How to Be Cool and George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones. On Sunday, we hopped back on the ferry to head back to Wellington.
How am I feeling?
It is easy to get frustrated waiting for ethics approval. Sometimes I feel like I am twiddling my thumbs or creating work just to feel like I’m doing more. However, I have to admit that filling out the application made me rethink my project and narrow it down to something more manageable (see my last post for more on this). So, in that way, it was a valuable step in the process. Whenever I find myself wishing the process was faster, I also find myself wondering if that is the American in me. Really, I’m just trying to accept it for what it is and savor my time in New Zealand. I’m already a third of the way through my time here, and I’m sure these last four months are going to fly by. So, there is no use in basking in frustration. I must make the most of what I’m given.