Balancing the local and the universal in maintaining ethical access to a genomics biobank

Authors : Catherine Heeney, Shona M. Kerr


Issues of balancing data accessibility with ethical considerations and governance of a genomics research biobank, Generation Scotland, are explored within the evolving policy landscape of the past ten years. During this time data sharing and open data access have become increasingly important topics in biomedical research.

Decisions around data access are influenced by local arrangements for governance and practices such as linkage to health records, and the global through policies for biobanking and the sharing of data with large-scale biomedical research data resources and consortia.


We use a literature review of policy relevant documents which apply to the conduct of biobanks in two areas: support for open access and the protection of data subjects and researchers managing a bioresource.

We present examples of decision making within a biobank based upon observations of the Generation Scotland Access Committee. We reflect upon how the drive towards open access raises ethical dilemmas for established biorepositories containing data and samples from human subjects.


Despite much discussion in science policy literature about standardisation, the contextual aspects of biobanking are often overlooked. Using our engagement with GS we demonstrate the importance of local arrangements in the creation of a responsive ethical approach to biorepository governance.

We argue that governance decisions regarding access to the biobank are intertwined with considerations about maintenance and viability at the local level. We show that in addition to the focus upon ever more universal and standardised practices, the local expertise gained in the management of such repositories must be supported.


A commitment to open access in genomics research has found almost universal backing in science and health policy circles, but repositories of data and samples from human subjects may have to operate under managed access, to protect privacy, align with participant consent and ensure that the resource can be managed in a sustainable way.

Data access committees need to be reflexive and flexible, to cope with changing technology and opportunities and threats from the wider data sharing environment. To understand these interactions also involves nurturing what is particular about the biobank in its local context.

URL : Balancing the local and the universal in maintaining ethical access to a genomics biobank