Judging from Samuel P. Jacobs's story, "Stern Lessons For Terrorism Expert," Harvard Crimson, March 23, 2007, the Harvard IRB is pretty darn good when it comes to non-biomedical research. Policy researcher Jessica E. Stern learned from the IRB to "not learn the names of many of the people she is interviewing—preferring to use pseudonyms—thus protecting the privacy of her interviewees and making her notes less valuable to federal investigators." She states, “Harvard’s IRB is the only one I know of to approve the kind of research I do. They’ve bent over backwards to make what I do possible, which is better than any other IRB.” Law professor Elizabeth Warren has “never encountered an IRB as helpful as Harvard’s."
Yet another researcher finds "the process is so cryptic and idiosyncratic" that "his students often can’t anticipate the reasons why the institutional review board will reject a proposal." And Stern herself, who got valuable help from the IRB, complains that "Before I came to Harvard, I had pretty remarkable interviews with terrorists . . . There are a lot of reasons that those kind of interviews would be hard today. One of them is the post-September 11 environment, but the other is the IRB strictures.” One project, to interview radical black Muslims, died entirely because of the delay in approval. (Note: this is just what Robert Kerr warned us about.)
How can we have the best of both worlds—helpful advice without arbitrary rejections and delays? Voluntary review.