Thursday, July 26, 2007

White, "Institutional Review Board Mission Creep"

Ronald F. White, a professor of philosophy at the College of Mount St. Joseph, is fed up with IRB review of the social sciences: "Institutional Review Board Mission Creep: The Common Rule, Social Science, and the Nanny State," Independent Review 11 (Spring 2007): 547-564.

Much of the piece will be familiar to those who have followed recent IRB debates, but I did enjoy White's first-hand account:

My IRB experience with graduate student projects on leadership was eye opening. A colleague and I taught the course. We spent hours checking student IRB forms, and half the semester was consumed in getting their protocols past the committee chair. All of these projects involved harmless interviews and questionnaires to be done in the workplace. The overwhelming majority of the students' employers not only supported their research, but in many instances were paying for them to attend graduate school. All of my students found the IRB debacle to be nitpicking nonsense. Many of them ultimately received an "incomplete" for the course. It would be convenient simply to blame our IRB chair for this debacle. However, that person was not only a highly competent and cooperative IRB chair and an established social scientist, but also an extraordinarily cooperative friend of mine. In short, the IRB fiasco is not about persons, but about a system.

After that initial experience, the program redefined the project so that all students could get IRB approval by providing the same answers on the form. This adaptation made IRB compliance less onerous, but it severely limited the student's choice of topics and deprived them of the opportunity to do real science. Since then, the course has introduced a whole new kind of research option for students that avoids IRB involvement. I surmise that in most educational settings, the demands of IRB compliance have led to requiring topics and projects that are easier to get past boards.

There are a couple of points here. First, as Robert Kerr has noted, research delay may be research denied, so we should not take at face value IRB claims about the low percentage of projects that are rejected outright. Second, boilerplate approval processes may lead to boilerplate research--the chilling effect that IRB critics have noted for decades.

What intrigues me most is how a philosopher got snared in this mess, and I hope to learn more about the course and the research White's students were pursuing.

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