Sapientia et Doctrina Lecture Series
Doty Chair Explores the Ethics of Research
As a freshman at Cornell University, Celia B. Fisher, Ph.D., enthusiastically agreed to participate in a psychological study, only to be humiliated when she was told that another participant quit the study because she disliked Fisher. As it turns out, it was all part of the plan—the purpose of the “deception” study was to measure the effects of humiliation.
Even though the researcher later explained this to Fisher, it would be years before she fully understood this research method and got over the embarrassment it caused her.
This experience, along with her early research with children, drove Fisher to investigate ethical issues in psychological research, she told an audience in the William D. Walsh Family Library’s Flom Auditorium on Nov. 12. Her lecture, “Wisdom, Learning and Justice in Health Care Research,” was part of the Sapientia et Doctrina Lecture Series and marked Fisher’s installation as the Marie Ward Doty Professor of Psychology. She was awarded the Sapientia et Doctrina medallion for her distinguished scholarship and contributions to ethics policies for health research and practice.
During her lecture, Fisher said that she entered the field of psychology as “a warrior in the scientific quest for knowledge,” however, “motherhood stopped me dead in my Donna Quixote tracks.” While testing infants in studies on visual perception, she started to wonder if exposing babies to even mild discomforts was worth the benefits of the research.
“These experiences and other fortuitous professional circumstances drew me into the field of ethics,” said Fisher, who is also the director of Fordham’s Center for Ethics Education. She added, “I approached my newfound cause with the same formalism with which I had pursued scientific knowledge years earlier. I hoped that through an ethicist’s armory of moral principles and moral frameworks, one could construct a universal code of research ethics free of subjective bias.”
Fisher quickly learned that her mission would be fraught with philosophical dilemmas. She realized that traditional approaches to ethical decision making were problematic because they prioritized the reasoning ability of scientists while ignoring and devaluing the perspectives of research participants.
“I realized that the best way to truly care for research participants is to understand their point of view,” she said. “And the best way to understand their point of view is to ask them.”
Fisher has spent years learning from and providing ethical guidance to vulnerable communities, such as children, ethnic minorities and adults with developmental disabilities. Through her research, she has been faced with questions of moral obligation, including researchers’ responsibility to help teenagers in trouble and to ensure that their research does not stigmatize a community.
Two years ago, Fisher chaired a Fordham Ethics Center-sponsored conference that, with support from the National Institute of Mental Health and the American Psychological Association (APA), developed the first published guidelines for ethical conduct in mental health research involving ethnic minority children and youth. She has also helped to develop educational tools to make sure that adults with developmental disabilities understand and can give informed consent for research and treatment. For five years, Fisher chaired the APA's Ethics Code Task Force, which was responsible for revising the Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct. The code took effect on June 1, 2003. Fisher is currently a member of the Secretary of Health and Human Services’ Advisory Committee on Human Research Protections.
As the occupant of the Marie Ward Doty Chair, Fisher will continue to lead the much-needed academic inquiry into the area of ethical research involving a wide variety of vulnerable populations. The Doty Chair was established in 1980 through a generous endowment by George E. Doty (FCO ’38) in honor of his wife, Marie.
Fordham University’s motto, Sapientia et Doctrina (Wisdom and Learning), emphasizes rigorous scholarship and embraces a community of men and women committed to exploring the life of the mind. In this spirit, a lecture series celebrating the inauguration of the 32nd president of Fordham University, Joseph M. McShane, S.J., was established.
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Copyright © 2003, Fordham University.
The Sapientia et Doctrina medallion, which Father McShane presented to Professor Fisher, is bestowed on individuals of national and international renown who have made substantial contributions to the advancement of their disciplines and to an understanding of the ideals of Jesuit education.
From left to right: John Hollwitz, Ph.D., vice president for academic affairs; Nancy Busch, Ph.D., dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences; Celia B. Fisher, Ph.D., Marie Ward Doty Professor of Psychology; and Joseph M. McShane, S.J., president of Fordham University.