Tuesday, August 11, 2009

UT Knoxville's IRB Joins "Collective Mobbing"

Over at Counterpunch, anthropologist David Price reports on the case of Janice Harper, an anthropologist recently dismissed from the University of Tennesee Knoxville.

According to Price, Harper's troubles began in 2007, when she reported sexual harassment by a colleague. Despite a unanimous vote from her college's tenure and promotion committee and strong outside letters of support, her associate dean opposed her bid for tenure. Worse still, she was accused of mental instability. As Price reports, "like a textbook discussion of collective mobbing behavior, the act of investigation brought more accusations," including student allegations that Harper planned to build a hydrogen bomb. This led to an FBI investigation, which found no criminal activity.

All of this would be bad enough, but then the IRB decided to make it worse. As Price explains,

Dr. Harper says that in early June, the University of Tennessee’s Institutional Review Board (IRB) revoked her standing research clearance on the grounds that the police and FBI investigations and the seizure of her research materials exposed her informants to risks. She was told that she "could not use my data until I had assurance from the FBI and university that I was no longer under surveillance." As these investigations continued, however, they found nothing to indicate that she had made threats or was somehow building a hydrogen bomb. Yet, Dr. Harper was caught in a classic double-bind. Although the FBI did not find that she had done anything wrong, she could not complete her work simply because this investigation had opened her private research records up to FBI scrutiny. This, of course, seriously imperiled her professional activity and development. Last fall, Dr. Harper learned that the faculty in her department voted to deny her tenure application.

Price suggests that the IRB's action was a major element in the collapse of Harper's career. He writes that "the loss of a scholar’s IRB clearance because of an FBI investigation that found no wrong doing ought to be an issue of central importance to such professional organizations, and I would hope that the AAUP, AAA and SFAA would recognize the need for them to weigh-in on this and other procedural aspects of her case. This is a case that impacts us all."

Price complains about the heavy hand of the "National Security State," and he titles his post "Trial by FBI Investigation." But in his account, the FBI was not Harper's biggest problem; it investigated a threat of nuclear terrorism and closed the case with reasonable efficiency. The IRB, by contrast, apparently offered no such resolution. Perhaps Price needs to worry less about the National Security State and more about the Human Subjects Protection State.

[Editor's Note: The Institutional Review Blog opposes letting anthropologists acquire thermonuclear weapons.]


Unknown said...

I see you posted about this before I could even send you the link to Price's article! I thought you'd be interested in the peculiar ethics twist (sorry, make that "Ethics") to this case, and I was right.

Indeed, when I first read Price's article, that was the thing that most vividly grabbed my attention: the fact that her tenure bid must have certainly been affected by the fact that her IRB had rescinded not only her permission to conduct research, but even her right to use previously collected data.

Zachary M. Schrag said...

Thank you for this comment.

While we have only sketchy details from Price's account, I think this case suggests that IRBs are the wrong tool for protecting confidentiality.

The UT IRB did not, it seems, warn the participants in Harper's original research that her notes would be seized on the grounds of nuclear terrorism, since no one could have foreseen such a bizarre chain of events. The IRB did not prevent the seizure of the materials, for it had no such power. And it did not find a way to allow Harper's research to proceed.

Since the early 1970s, scholars concerned with the question of confidentiality have argued that if state and federal governments are serious about protecting confidentiality, they will pass laws shielding the research notes of social scientists, just as many states now have shield laws protecting journalists. Instead, governments have imposed IRB mandates that offer a false sense of security for research participants and can be used to stifle the work of ethical researchers.