Monday, March 14, 2011

Report from APPE

Earlier this month I traveled to Cincinnati for the annual meeting of the Association for Practical and Professional Ethics. There I met a fascinating group of researchers, ethicists, university administrators, IRB staff, and IRB members--with significant overlap among those groups.

One conference panel was devoted to Ethical Imperialism. Lyndall Angel of Charles Sturt University chaired the session, and John J. Laukaitis (Elmhurst College), Douglas J. Adams, (University of Arkansas), and William L. Gannon (University of New Mexico) provided comments on the book.

The critics were most kind. Laukaitis, a historian, had tangled a bit with an IRB as a graduate student, and he found reading the book "cathartic." He noted his surprise that complaints about IRB restrictions are not evenly distributed, but instead suggest a pattern of challenges to particularly controversial research.

Adams, a sociologist and an IRB chair, was taken by the power dynamics at work in my story. For example, he compared the politics of the National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioral Research to those of the 9/11 Commission, whose composition determined what questions were and were not explored. And he suggested that I might have paid more attention to both conflict theory and to the specific historical context of the 1970s (Watergate, Vietnam, etc.).

Finally, Gannon picked up on the question of transparency. Both he and Laukaitis were interested in the efforts at Berkeley in the early 1970s to provide such transparency by maintaining a file of previous IRB decisions, to be consulted by both researchers and the board itself. (A member of the audience asked how competitive researchers would react to their research agendas being made so public. It's a good question.)

The gentleness of these comments was representative of the impression I gained from the conference in general: that many people who are deeply committed to research ethics, many of whom themselves serve on IRBs, are quite aware of the flaws in the present system and curious about their origin.

They are not, however, ready to scrap the system we have now until presented with a better alternative. I will keep looking for better systems now in place.

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