Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Crackdown at Indiana University

The Bloomington Herald-Times reports (August 10-12) on problems with human subject reviews at Indiana University in Bloomington (IUB). Though the paper does not give details of what went wrong, it does state that in the summer of 2008, two whistleblowers in the human subjects office successfully the appealed negative evaluations they had received after airing complaints. Their immediate supervisor, Carey Conover, has been reassigned, But Conover's boss, Eric Swank, has been promoted to executive director for research compliance for Bloomington and other Indiana campuses, with a salary bump from $79,000 to $119,600.

Moreover, the university has moved to protect itself by layering on more administration. According to an August 17 Herald-Times column by the university provost, Bloomington's new president "has expanded the budget for research compliance by $4.3 million - the single largest addition to his budget - in order to create a university-wide organization of well over 100 people, professionals whose sole mission is to preserve and protect the university's research mission." And starting July 1, all IUB studies have been sent to the Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI) IRB, where, the university promises, they will be met with an "AAHRPP-accredted HRPP" and legions of "CIP-certified staff members." Meanwhile, Bloomington IRB members and staff were sent for reeducation by Jeffrey Cohen, who, no doubt, told them to review oral history.

None of this is reassuring to social scientists back at Bloomington. Writing in the Herald-Times on September 14, Noretta Koertge, a specialist in research ethics, urged "the university to take this opportunity to resist bureaucratic mission creep." Lower on the chain, informatics PhD student Kevin Makice frets that the dust-up will delay his research to the point that he will have to rely on theory and public data to meet a conference deadline. He writes, "The human-computer interaction crowd often goes to [the Computer/Human Interaction conference] talking about the woes of the research approval process only to hear how much simpler it is on other U.S. campuses and seemingly non-existent off the continent. Now, with IUPUI overburdened by serving multiple campuses--which apparently is in the long-term restructuring plans anyway--we miss the days of it just being too complicated."

Back in 2005, the Illinois White Paper on IRBs complained that the "death penalty" of shutting down all research at a university in response to a single IRB violation. This penalty, the paper warned, was largely responsible for IRBs' terrified emphasis on regulatory compliance. It looks like Indiana researchers will suffer for the sins of the research administrators.

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