Thursday, April 12, 2012

An End to IRBs?

Ethics review is a big industry. As Will van den Hoonaard has noted,

In Canada alone, the business of academic ethics is a $35 million industry; when you include three other countries (United States, United Kingdom, and Australia), the industry amounts to some $500 million, with an inordinate amount of costs borne by cash-strapped universities. The reciprocal obligations, contradictions, and inherent permutations of such a large industry are nearly impossible to escape.

It may be hard to imagine such an industry disappearing overnight.

Yet I was struck by a possible analogue in the history of the population control movement, as described by historian Matthew Connelly in his book, Fatal Misconception: The Struggle to Control World Population (Harvard University Press, 2008).

Connelly describes the fate of the population control movement in the late 1970s, after the 1974 World Population Conference and India had moved away from its recommendations:

All of the most important international and nongovernmental organizations in the field entered a period of agonizing reappraisal. Facing staff and budget cuts, population controllers could only take bitter satisfaction in receiving confirmation that fertility rates had begun to fall in almost every region of the world. Together with unfulfilled predictions of global famine, it only made their work seem less urgent, and their excesses all the more unforgivable. Continuing debates about whether government programs were reducing fertility rates—in most places, it started without them—were becoming matters of merely academic interest.

Some people working from the inside had always resisted the idea that they needed to plan other people's families. But there was too much invested in population control for these institutions to transform themselves overnight. In 1980, about $2 billion was being spent on population programs in poor countries, including some $490 million in international aid. For the most part, it was not pledged to promote gender equality or maternal health. With funding already down relative to inflation as well as other kinds of international aid, downplaying a long-standing commitment to reduce fertility might lead to further losses. Careers and reputations depended on the proposition that it remained both practical and urgent. The status quo was also buttressed by the ideological detritus of decades, which continued to attribute war, famine, disease, and degeneration to "overpopulation."'

Those who genuinely wanted to empower people, and not control them, struggled to disentangle themselves from all of this. It was not obvious how to make a clean break—that is, how to stop coercion and advance a different agenda that could work in dozens of different countries. Hundreds of millions of people had come to depend on family planning programs, for all their faults, and many more were still left to their own devices. If this was not to be a self-serving exercise in exculpation, their needs had to come first.

[Matthew Connelly, Fatal Misconception: The Struggle to Control World Population, pp. 327-328. Kindle Edition.]

And yet, he suggests, by 1994, "Population control as a global movement was no more." (p. 369).

Can we imagine a similar end to IRBs? A reassessment of basic assumptions, followed by a 15 or 20 year period in which funding is gradually reduced, and people whose careers and reputations depend on erroneous propositions find other work to do? In 2031, perhaps we will look back on the ANPRM as the beginning of the end.

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