Thursday, January 27, 2011

Does the NSF Have an Oral History Policy?

An independent scholar has been told by a National Science Foundation program officer that if she plans to do oral history she should "speak in the application to the problem of IRB review."

If the NSF is requiring IRB review of oral history, it is out of step with the recent actions other federal agencies, including the Smithsonian, the Army, and the Office for Human Research Protections.

I am not aware of any NSF policy document on this issue, so it is not clear if the program officer's statement represented the NSF position or the officer's personal views.


Anonymous said...

My guess is that program officers have little understanding of the regulations. What they do understand is that when they are processing an award they have to document whether human subjects research is involved or not, whether it is exempt or otherwise, etc. So the PO is probably just looking for an acceptable piece of paper that tells him or her what to tick and provides appropriate CYA. Normally a letter or form from the IRB would accomplish this. Of course if the PO understood the regulations he or she would know that the regs are silent on how an activity is determined to not involve human subjects research or meets the requirements for exemption--although NSF may require this come from an IRB. This is problematic for independent researchers involved in an activity where there is no institutional involvement. If there was an institution involved in the activity then he or she could just sign an independent investigator agreement, have the institution's IRB write a letter stating that the activity doesn't involve human subjects research because, presumably in this case, the activity isn't a "systematic investigation, including research development, testing and evaluation, designed to develop or contribute to generalizable knowledge". My guess is that the fact that the activity involves oral history is irrelevant. They don't care what you call it; they just want their paperwork.

Anonymous said...

Looking at her original post again, she appears to be in the application submission stage. I think she just needs to make a case in the application that the activity isn't HSR because it doesn't meet the regulatory definition of research. She'll need to read the regulations and OHRP guidance and quote appropriate parts (e.g. §46.102(d)) to make a convincing case why this isn't research and why involvement of an IRB is therefore unnecessary. Of course if they decide to fund her, they may still come back and bug her for independent documentation.

Zachary M. Schrag said...

Thank you for these comments.

What is alarming about this case is that the program officer is demanding that the researcher meet a standard without articulating that standard.

Why should an independent scholar speak to the problem of IRB review of oral history any more than she should speak to the problem of IRB review of reading a newspaper? There should be no problem.

As Jerry Menikoff noted in 2009, "In the absence of guidance, people tend to be reluctant to take certain actions out of fear that they are violating the rules. In some instances, important research is not even attempted, all because of a misunderstanding. Guidance could eliminate the misconception and clear the way for research."

Anonymous said...

I wonder if part of the difficulty here might be the slightly ambiguous nature of "oral history". NSF may not regard the simple collecting of oral history as 'science' -- if there is an analysis phase of the proposed research (a 'science' component to the proposal) it might then be subject to IRB approval. Anthropologists ran into this kind of problem with NSF for a long time -- simply collecting data was not necessarily regarded as sufficiently scientific for the cultural anthro program officer who was in place for years. But that's essentially why "oral history" is exempt from IRB review: it's just collecting data.
Certainly our experience with NSF and oral history would lead me to conclude that the policy is something like: "Oral history" is supported by NEH or NEA. If you want NSF support you should go beyond oral history, and at that point you are into an IRB realm.

Zachary M. Schrag said...

I think NSF values oral history more than that. But as an agency, it has not developed a coherent policy about IRB review of oral history.