Wed 12 Apr 2023 — 6 min

Trans Safety Network notes its serious and ongoing concerns surrounding a study at the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan) following a reply from the University’s Ethics Panel.

On the 13th of March, Trans Safety Network published its concerns regarding a study being undertaken at the University of Central Lancashire.

This is because the study in question forms part of the doctoral research of Jacky Grainger, who is notorious in the Irish LGBTQ+ community for having co-authored an article concerning a Bill to ban conversion therapy within the Irish Times. The article downplays the present day reality of conversion therapy, and led to a boycott by the Irish Students Union. The piece to the Irish Times was written alongside Stella O’Malley who has been caught on record advocating for conversion therapy for young trans individuals.

We raised our concerns with the University, asking for clear assurance that meaningful safeguards are in place for research participants, especially given that this research involves adolescent research participants.

We received the following response from. the Chair of their Health Ethics Panel:

Dear [Trans Safety Network],

I am writing on behalf of the University, and in response to your recent communication in relation to Jacky Grainger who is undertaking a Professional Doctorate. Specifically, around details of the project, process of ethics approval and your concerns around safeguarding.

I have in my capacity as the Chair of the Health Ethics Panel looked at the documents submitted for ethics approval and confined the review in areas that fall within the University’s Ethics Policy. I found that the submission contained detailed and thorough information about the project. All research brings an element of risk but some types of research particularly those sensitive in nature require additional consideration. In this case the student provided information about previous engagement in the topic area which included the Irish Times article so we were aware.

Ethics submissions for students are submitted under the responsibility of a Director of Studies who is involved in the oversight of students‘ work and ensures the student is supported in undertaking their research. The ethics application and supporting documents were seen by two reviewers, a lay member and the acting Chair of the ethics panel prior to approval being granted by the Health Ethics Review Panel.

The research project aimed to recruit participants aged 13-17 who are often unrepresented in research in this area to undertake an interview about their lived experiences of gender and/or gender dysphoria and their experiences within therapy/counselling. With the aim to determine what young people want therapeutically in terms of psychological support. The student was seeking consent from participants and their parents/guardians. Participation was completely voluntary and participants were able to withdraw at any point and pause or have a break at any time during the interview. Participants were informed of wider support available to them both prior and following the interview, this included the option of the student contacting their parent/guardian. The student had undertaken safeguarding training, is professionally trained and is supported by an experienced supervisory team.

Whilst the project was reviewed as a standalone and distinct piece of work, all researchers must follow a set of ethical guidelines and code of conduct. There are many reasons for this but principally to protect research participants to ensure that participation is voluntary, informed and safe. I am satisfied that the student has fully adhered to university ethics procedures. I hope that this response reassures you of the diligent ethics oversight of this project and steps taken to review the students previous engagement in this area which formed part of the ethics process.

Many thanks for raising your concerns.

Yours sincerely,

Chair of the Health Ethics Panel

Following this reponse, Trans Safety Network still has serious ongoing concerns about the safety of participants.

This was our response:

Dear [Chair]

We are concerned that the potential for harm to minor participants is being disregarded in favour of a tick box approach to safeguarding and research ethics.

In this specific situation the concerns we have would be the potential for harm to research participants during interview, as well as after the interview if they find out they have been helping with the research project of a person who thinks their identities are "gender identity ideology".

The first potential harm is not adequately mitigated by safeguarding training. Our concerns are not that the researcher might not refer a disclosure of abuse to the correct authorities, we are concerned that she is likely to phrase her questions in ways likely to be distressing to trans children. We do not feel that a child being able to leave an interview after experiencing distress addresses this potential for harm, a child leaving an interview because they are upset has obviously already been harmed.

The second potential harm to participants is emotional distress on discovering the researchers opposition to a conversion therapy ban and statements denouncing "gender identity ideology". Most of the trans community would consider her views obviously anti trans and be unwilling to participate in her research. Young research participants can't be expected to look into a researcher's background, and the potential for distress if they find out they have unwittingly participated in the research of someone they consider anti-trans is high. If they find this out before publication they would have to contact the researcher to get their data withdrawn, and if they find out later than that they may be faced with the prospect of having their words used against their will. Based on our knowledge of the trans community, we think these scenarios are likely, and are likely to cause significant distress to participants. Safeguarding training does not mitigate this potential for harm. Whilst of course she has the right to hold these views, they should be actively disclosed to prospective participants to prevent harm.

This is exacerbated by UCLan being used as a source of legitimacy and trust in the researcher. We believe that participants may trust that a university would not allow a researcher with views they consider anti trans to interact with trans children, and will feel UCLan has breached their trust.

We appreciate that this is not a typical issue for research ethics, and not one you will have processes in place to deal with. However, we believe you have an obligation to prevent harm to minor research participants even when the harms are not the ones you usually consider.

We ask that the University take action to protect the safety of young trans participants by ensuring such views are disclosed in advance. We will be publishing this response to ensure that the community continues to be aware of the potential harm to these young trans participants. If the University fails to take appropriate steps to protect such participants then we will consider taking further action.


Trans Safety Network