Sunday, March 13, 2011

Professor Sues Brown University Over IRB Mission Creep

Jin Li, Associate Professor of Education at Brown University, has sued the university in federal court for forbidding her from using data from a study she conducted with private funding.

[Alexandria D'Angelo, "Professor Says Brown U Has a Lot of Nerve," Courthouse News Service, 1 March 2011. Thanks to Illuminata for catching this.]

Li obtained a grant from a private foundation for an investigation entitled "European American and Chinese Immigrant Children's Learning Beliefs and Related Socialization at Home."

According to the complaint, which was filed on February 25, the study "essentially involved educational testing of Chinese American children and interviews of their parents. Brown's IRB approved payment to each family in the amount of $600 per family for three years of participation in the investigation."

When Li found that lower income families were spending more time completing the surveys and interviews, she decided to pay those families the $600 per year but pay wealthier families only $300. Brown (it's not clear what office) approved her budget, and each family agreed to the payments. But in February 2010, the IRB denied a modification of the protocol and forbade Li from using the data she had collected.

Li has sued the university for $200,000 based on the following counts:

1. The Brown IRB does not meet the standards of 45 CFR 46.107, which requires sufficient "diversity of the members, including consideration of race, gender, and cultural backgrounds and sensitivity to such issues as community attitudes, to promote respect for its advice and counsel in safeguarding the rights and welfare of human subjects." According to the complaint, the IRB lacks minority members and is therefore unqualified to review research by a Chinese-born scholar of the Chinese immigrant community.

2. The university has "deprived the Plaintiff of any opportunity for internal review of the action of its IRB," despite provisions in 45 CFR 46.112 allowing such review. This, she claims, is a deprivation of due process.

3. The project "is exempt from IRB review pursuant to 45 C.F.R. Sec. 46.101 in that (a) it does not involve federal employees, federal funds, or regulation by any federal agency and (b) it involves education testing, surveys, and interviews and poses no threat to any human subject."

4. Brown's limits have imposed economic harm on Li by denying her the use of the information she obtained.

5. Brown has "interfered with the relationship between the Plaintiff and the foundation that awarded her the grant to conduct the investigation."

Li has demanded a jury trial.

The complaint is vague about what cause or causes of action are alleged, making me doubt Li's chances of recovery. But the case could remind liability-shy universities that too much IRB oversight, as well as too little, does real harm to researchers, research participants, granting organizations, and communities.

UPDATE (8 December 2014). Li's case was dismissed in March 2012. See Li Abandons Suit, But Brown University Still Ponders IRB Reform.


Shirley Isbill said...

Where can I find the court's decision on this issue? OR whether it was settle out of court.

Zachary M. Schrag said...

Update here.

Unknown said...

What is the status of this case?

Don Green, Columbia

Zachary M. Schrag said...

See Li Abandons Suit, But Brown University Still Ponders IRB Reform for the follow-up.