Douglas MacKay

Designation: Associate Professor, University of North Carolina
Douglas MacKay is an Associate Professor in the Department of Public Policy at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the ‘Ethicist in Residence’ at The Transfer Project. His research and teaching interests concern questions at the intersection of justice and public policy. He is currently working on projects concerning the ethics of public policy research; the ethics of health and welfare policy; and the normative dimensions of public policy analysis.

Blogs by author

Standards of care in policy research

This blog post expands on ideas discussed in an earlier series of blog posts on ethics in social science research. Read the introduction to that series here and read about 3ie's Transparent, Reproducible, and Ethical Evidence framework here.

The ethics of payments to research participants

Data collection is often a burdensome and time-consuming activity for research participants, particularly when it involves hours-long surveys. Researchers may wonder if they should pay participants for their time, how much they should offer, and whether it should take the form of cash or in-kind provision. They may worry that a failure to pay participants risks exploitation, but also that the promise of payment may unduly influence or even coerce people to participate, particularly when prospective participants are poor. I explore these issues in this post, focusing first on the rationale for payment before turning to concerns regarding coercion and undue inducement.

Policy equipoise and ethical implementation experiments: Evidence of effectiveness, not merely efficacy

One ethical concern that researchers and implementation partners confront with the use of experiments to evaluate policy interventions is the withholding of an intervention or policy – e.g. a cash transfer or empowerment collective – from otherwise eligible people. This concern may be alleviated in cases where there is a scarcity of resources. It is also alleviated when the relevant community of experts is in a state of equipoise regarding the merits of the intervention under study and the status quo. In this post, I discuss some of the factors to be considered when making judgments regarding equipoise.

How does scarcity inform ethical withholding of treatment?

In order to conduct an impact evaluation, researchers and implementation partners sometimes justify withholding an intervention from some eligible people to form a control group – for example to conduct a randomized controlled trial (RCT) – on the grounds that resources for an intervention are scarce. The argument is that since there are insufficient resources (e.g. money or bureaucratic capacity) to offer an intervention to all eligible people, it is fair to allocate access to the treatment by means of a lottery.