Ethics and ethical principles extend to all spheres of human activity. They apply to our dealings with each other, with animals and the environment.
Australian activity in ethical review of human research began during the 1960s and was related closely to the federal funding of medical research. Through the passage of the Medical Research Endowment Fund Act 1937, the Commonwealth Parliament had established the Medical Research Endowment Fund. Responsibility for the fund was vested in the Minister for Health, who could determine its use for medical research and in the training of persons in medical research, acting on the advice of the National Health and Medical Research Council, constituted in 1936.
In 1966, the Council issued the Statement on Human Experimentation that expressly drew on the Helsinki Declaration. In 1972, the Council appointed the Ethics in Clinical Research Subcommittee to examine the need to revise the Statement. Their report recommended peer group assessment of experiments involving human subjects and, in 1976, Supplementary Note 1 was added to the Statement, to make the requirement for review by an institutional ethics committee (IEC) explicit. The opening paragraphs were also amended to indicate that the Statement was applicable to all human subject research, encompassing medical, social and behavioural research.
In October 1982, the Council established the Medical Research Ethics Committee to assist the Council by keeping under review and making recommendations to Council on ethical principles in human experimentation and to facilitate, keep under review and report to the Council on the work of IECs, and respond to questions raised by them.
In November 1985, the Council adopted a recommendation that any institution that conducts research on humans must conform to Supplementary Note 1 in order to be eligible to receive funds for research from the Council. The risk of ineligibility to receive Council funds was an effective inducement for institutions to establish IECs. By 1990, it was estimated that there were over 100 IECs throughout Australia and in 2005, there are more than 220. (IECs are now known as Human Research Ethics Committees.)
The National Health and Medical Research Council Act 1992 establishes the Role of the CEO whose functions include the issue of "guidelines for the conduct of medical research involving humans". These guidelines must be issued precisely as developed by the principal committee of Council known as the Australian Health Ethics Committee (AHEC).
In 1994, the Commonwealth Minister for Human Services and Health commissioned a review of the role and functioning of Institutional Ethics Committees . In March 1996, the report of that review recommended that the existing guidelines be reviewed. Between 1996 and July 1999, AHEC developed the guidelines that were contained in the National Statement on Ethical Conduct in Research involving Humans (1999) (National Statement), issued by the NHMRC and endorsed by major research and academic institutions.
The NHMRC, the Australian Research Council and the Australian Vice-Chancellors Committee commenced a review of the National Statement in 2005. The review involved wide consultation with institutions and researchers in all disciplines and the community. In March 2007 after two rounds of public consultation the National Statement on Ethical Conduct in Human Research (2007) was released. This update provides more in-depth ethical guidance than the 1999 National Statement.