Two years ago, University of Queensland (UQ) researchers Paul Frijters and Redzo Mujcic published a couple of working papers that documented substantial, statistically significant discrimination on the part of Brisbane bus drivers, especially against people of colour. Interestingly, the authors also found that Asians were not discriminated again, a finding which I find hard to reconcile with the anecdotal evidence I have seen in Sydney, for example. There were many other important findings in the Mujcic-Frijters study which quantified various aspects of discrimination in an innovative manner that could be a template for further studies.
UQ initially issued a press release to announce these findings and outlets such as The Sydney Morning Herald picked up the study that curiously – given its important quantification of white privilege — was never published and did not get publicity afterwards. Last week, in the wake of two contributions in The New York Times and Forbes by Yale Law School professor Ian Ayres, we learned why. Not a pretty story it is.
According to numerous contributions in Core Economics Today, The Australian, The Brisbane Times, The Washington Post, and many others, it seems that a day after the press release, UQ administrators told Frijters – the supervisor of then-Ph.D. candidate Mujcic – that the research had to be pulled out of the media and was not to be published because it had not received appropriate ethics clearance. It also has emerged that this discovery seems to have been prompted by the Brisbane bus company (Translink) media adviser asking how a study that seemed to involve fare evasion could receive ethics clearance.
Fare evasion? No, not really for all I know. Frijters & Mujcic had 29 young adult testers – duly mixed by gender, ethnicity, and attire – board Translink buses and insert an insufficiently funded fare card into the scanner. The testers then told the bus-drivers, “I do not have any money, but need to go to [a station about 1.2 miles away]”. The bus-drivers were thus prompted to make a call whether to allow the testers to stay onboard.
In the flurry of contributions and discussions in various outlets over the last few days, facts and open questions have emerged. Was deception involved? (Having written extensively about the issue of deception in economics and other social sciences, I believe, no: The testers had insufficiently funded fare cards and as part of their research had to go to the destination that they gave the bus-drivers. Hence there were no deceptive statements. Of course, bets are off on this one if the testers had indeed money on them and / or valid fare cards.) Did Frijters, Australia’s Young Economist of the year in 2009 and by all measures one of Australia’s most productive economists, follow the ethics procedures then in place at UQ? (If indeed no deception was involved, apparently, yes.) Was it fare evasion? (No. The bus drivers could decline the request for a free ride.) Were bus drivers entitled to let people free ride that had insufficiently funded fare cards? (Apparently, as persuasively argued by Rabee Tourky in Core Economics Today, yes. According to him, in the wake of the Daniel Morcombe murder Brisbane bus drivers were instructed to use judgment when such requests were made.) Should the bus company have been informed about this research beforehand? Should bus-drivers have been debriefed that they just had participated in an experiment? Was it appropriate for the researchers to publish location and carrier?
Some of these questions do not have easy answers, as is becoming now clear. With the benefit of hindsight, ethics clearance on a higher level might have been a good idea, be it only to protect the researchers from over-the-top administrative responses including at some point a demotion for Frijters that UQ ultimately had the good sense to reverse and Mujcic’s inability to get his dissertation research published. Hindsight, of course, is 20/20. As matter of fact, likely Nobel Prize laureate John A. List has defended field experiments that involve lack of ex-ante informed consent, or ex-post debriefing in the 11 July 2008 issue of Science, a leading and highly influential general-interest magazine. Arguing that notifying experimental subjects is often neither possible nor necessary because of the minimal risk that is involved, he puts it thus: “[I]n a natural field experiment, the analyst manipulates experimental conditions in a natural manner, whereby the experimental subjects are unaware that they are participating in an experiment. This approach combines the most attractive elements of the laboratory and of naturally occurring data: randomization and realism.” When challenged on this proposition, he responded in the 31 OCTOBER 2008 issue thus:“Ethical issues surrounding human experimentation are of utmost importance. Yet, the benefits and costs of informed consent should be carefully considered in each situation. Those cases in which there are minimal benefits of informed consent but large costs are prime candidates for relaxation of informed consent.” This seems to describe the Frijters & Mujcic study well and is in any case, for better or worse, an increasingly accepted point of view among behavioural and experimental economists.
Ethics clearance requirements – implemented in response to scores of well-documented examples of Human Subject Research abuses (google them!) and universities’ concerns for liability and reputation — have become a considerable drain on researchers’ scarce resources in Australia, and – it has to be said — other places. I am sure every behavioral and experimental economist here in Australia will attest to that. Occasionally ethics clearance requirements are applied in questionable ways in that the gate-keepers feel entitled to make judgment calls on the quality of research. I consider this an unacceptable infringement of academic freedom. It is in any case clear that – in light of List’s position, for example, as well as the Frijters & Mujcic situation — it is time to have a conversation about these issues, so as to lift the administrative and regulatory fog.
That ethics clearance requirements have escalated, and unreasonably so in many a case by List’s standard, seems widely acknowledged in that a number of universities in Australia have fast-track procedures for low-risk research. It seems that UQ in 2012, when Frijters & Mujcic did their study, had such procedures in place although apparently there was some wiggle-room for interpretation. The Frijters-Mujcic study hence seemed to warrant at best an updating of procedures that were found wanting. I simply do not see a case for suppressing this research given its unquestionable importance, and given that no deception seems to have been involved.
Academic freedom is an important good and should be defended vigorously. It is deplorable that the ongoing UQ saga has come at a high cost to Frijters and his former Ph.D. student. Their time could have spent much more productively although I am confident that the saga has provided Frijters already with many examples for his ARC-funded research into socially undesirable behavior.
Given that UQ administrators continue to insist that the university has responded appropriately, and given the facts that have emerged over the last few days, it seems clear that UQ administrators at this point are an interested party and as such ought to excuse themselves from further attempts at assessments of what happened. The accusation of maladministration that is now in the open, is too important an accusation, and ought to be dealt with by truly independent investigators. UQ, and Frijters, should commit to implement whatever recommendations such investigators come up with. It is to be hoped that Frijters soon can do again what he does best: Research that addresses important real-world problems in innovative ways and that gets noticed, and recognized world-wide, for exactly that reason.