For Research, Scientists using Own Kids
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20 January 2009
By Pam Belluck
In An Era Of Scarce Funding, Experts Say Their Children Make For Reliable Subjects In Studies
Even before his son was born, Pawan Sinha saw unique potential. At a birthing class, Sinha, a neuroscience professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, stunned everyone, including his wife, by saying he was excited about the baby’s birth “because I really want to study him and do experiments with him”. He did, too, strapping a camera on baby Darius’s head, recording what he looked at.
Sinha is among a new crop of scientists using their children as research subjects.
Other researchers have studied their own children in the past, but sophisticated technology allows modern–day scientists to collect new and more detailed data. The scientists also say that studying their children allows for more in–depth research and that the children make reliable participants in an era of scarce research financing.
“You need subjects, and they’re hard to get,” said Deborah Linebarger, a developmental psychologist who directs the Children’s Media Lab at the University of Pennsylvania, who has involved her four children in her studies of the effect of media on children.
Arthur Toga, a neurology professor at the medical school at the University of California, Los Angeles, studying brain change, scanned his three children’s brains using magnetic resonance imaging. Stephen Camarata at the medical school at Vanderbilt, has involved all seven of his children in studies of learning problems and speech. And Deb Roy, at MIT, embedded 11 video cameras and 14 microphones in ceilings throughout his house, recording 70% of his son’s waking hours for his first three years, amassing 250,000 hours of tape for a language development study he calls the Human Speechome Project.
Some research methods are clearly benign; others, while not obviously dangerous, might not have fully understood effects. Ethicists said they would consider participation in some projects acceptable, even valuable, but raised questions about the effect on the child, on the relationship with the parent, and on the objectivity of the researcher or the data.
“The role of the parent is to protect the child,” said Robert Nelson, director of the Center for Research Integrity at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. “Once that parent becomes an investigator, it sets up an immediate potential conflict of interest. And it potentially takes the parentchild relationship and distorts it in ways that are unpredictable.”
Researchers themselves acknowledge the challenge of being simultaneously scientist and parent. “I don’t want them to feel uncomfortable, like I’m invading their privacy,” said Linebarger, who ultimately set some boundaries.
Children have been subjects for some well–known scientist–parents, including Jean Piaget, the child–development theorist. But some past examples would probably not pass ethical muster today. Jonas Salk injected his children with his polio vaccine.
These days, scientists using human subjects are expected to seek approval from institutional review boards, which consider federal regulations on risk, coercion of subjects and researcher bias. Some scientists said that in studies with multiple subjects they considered it unnecessary to report their child’s participation, because they would face no greater risk than others. Some asserted that involving their children proved risks were minimal. Some researchers sign required parental consent forms, and some have spouses sign.