I was attending a seminar in college. The study had tracked pregnant women over their course of pregnancy and a month after the delivery. A professor asked, “I am assuming that the women did not know the gender of the child during pregnancy. Overall, did you see gender bias in your study?” The speaker replied, “You are right. The woman did not know the gender of the child initially but we definitely saw the differences in their behavior once the child was born. For instance, a girl child was born to a woman. The bay needed special care. The family did not take necessary actions and very soon the child passed away.”
An answer to a simple question and it shook me from inside. I could see myself as an enumerator in the field, asking for the weight of the child, realizing that the child was underweight, noting it down and moving on. Did I know the risks? Yes. Did the woman know the risks? Yes. Was it my responsibility to make the woman take necessary steps? Not as a researcher. What about as a human?
What would have happened if I had intervened? Maybe the child would have survived and faced more discrimination later. But then, I would have tampered with my data – my outcome variable would have changed. The academic world would have ripped me apart. What does research ethic mean? How different is it from principles of life and personal ethics?
My work would be to note the data and move on from one house to another. The death of a child would be another data point for the researcher at the desk in an office far away. A paper would translate into a publication. I would sit quietly at night, alone. I would try to shut my conscience and please the researcher in me. What is my role? I hope I am mistaken, I hope someone from the academic world reads this blog and tells me that it is okay to intervene.
I broke out of my reverie and realized that the speaker was presenting the last slide. I listened to the questions that followed. She mentioned that the IRB regulations specifies that in case the researchers include high health risk women in the survey, then the enumerator and survey agency are responsible for the health of the women, in case anything happened to them. Further, she clarified, if a woman who was fine in the beginning of the survey fell sick later then the agency is not held responsible anymore. In their study, they had to drop high risk women from the survey for practical reasons. “The survey is not as random as you would have wanted them to be.” she asked, “How do you manoeuvre through these issues?”
A question was raised from the audience, “Did you work with the ASHA Workers? Their training could alter your results”. She replied, “I am a researcher. My job is not to implement the programs – my job is to stand and carefully observe and note what I see.” My job is to stand and observe – powerful and poignant at the same time. I left the seminar hall with more questions than before.
I was reminded of my early days of PhD. Professor had mentioned, “I hope your heart isn’t bleeding for the children. Face it – you are not going to make a difference through your immediate research.” Facing it, not giving up. Hope is a nice thing.