One of the great opportunities at a top tier research university is to be part of a community that is constantly seeking to know, striving to ask the hard questions and, at times, struggling to find the right answers. In this environment, there can certainly be at least a mild crisis effect in these efforts, at times some high-minded expression of the process and the access and the difficulties in finding just the right mix of ingredients to make the work…well…work. Is there enough funding? Is there enough time? Is it grounded in a cross-disciplinary approach? Where can we find the right mix of research participants and how can we know we’re doing right by them?

While some of these quandaries are fluid and malleable in how we can approach them, the question of how we can do right by our research participants has some more definitive guidelines to follow. The 1979 Belmont Report by the National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioral Research provided three guiding principles on the treatment of research participants. These basic principles are the respect of persons, beneficence and justice and, according to the report, this is what they mean.

  • Respect of Persons: Individuals should be treated as autonomous agents, and second, that persons with diminished autonomy are entitled to protection.
  • Beneficence: Persons are treated in an ethical manner not only by respecting their decisions and protecting them from harm, but also by making efforts to secure their well-being.
  • Justice: Who ought to receive the benefits of research and bear its burdens? This is a question of justice, in the sense of “fairness in distribution” or “what is deserved.” An injustice occurs when some benefit to which a person is entitled is denied without good reason or when some burden is imposed unduly.

So, we have a foundation to follow as it pertains to official research protocols. But when we are done, the data is crunched, our peers have reviewed, the paper published (or not), what then? Do we place the principles in our pocket and bring them out the next time we have human subjects in front of us? What is our obligation in-between the projects, that space where we live and we work and we play for the majority of our time?

What if everybody, not just research scientists, and not just during research activity, based their human interactions on the Belmont Principles?

What if all of our outreach, our community work, our time with colleagues, the roles we have with students and as students and the opportunity we have to engage with the people on this earth was guided by, if not exactly, at least a close approximation of, the same ideals? If that seems too broad, too far beyond our personal sphere, what if we started with our neighbors on this campus and in our South Bethlehem neighborhood? If that’s too disconnected from the stress and pressured realities of your daily life, how about just the next person you have contact with?

What would that world look like? More transparent? More ethical? More humane?

The Lehigh University Center for Community Engagement is committed to building university-community partnerships built on trust and reciprocity. In this exists a focus on ensuring an equity-based exchange between the university and those with whom we have the privilege of meaningful dialogue and action. The Belmont Principles help to guide this premise and we invite you to visit the center to learn more about our vision, how to live and work with these principles in mind, and discover the many resources we have to make your community-engaged activities more vibrant, more successful and more fulfilling for everybody involved.


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