Friday, July 13, 2012

IRB Chair: "Human Subjects Oversight Is Here to Stay"

Back in September 2011, I noted that the Professional Geographer had posted a focus section on IRBs (it appeared in print in February 2012). At the time I was too busy reading and writing ANPRM responses to comment on the six items in the focus section, but with the luxury of summer I can now do so. Today, I start with the introduction.

Ironically, given its appearance at that moment of regulatory upheaval, the introduction to the focus section dismisses the possibility of regulatory reform.

[Patricia L. Price, "Introduction: Protecting Human Subjects Across the Geographic Research Process," Professional Geographer 64:1 (2012), 1-6, DOI: 10.1080/00330124.2011.596780.]

The introduction is written by Patricia Price, professor of geography and chair of the university-wide IRB at Florida International University.

Price insists that she is not "an apologist for human subjects oversight," and she acknowledges the "disjunctures that exist between regulatory structures on the one hand and the actual practice of research on the other."

Yet Price is dismissive of IRB critiques.

Much of the literature on human subjects protection from the social sciences and humanities, however, presents an oversimplified picture. Too often, discussion devolves into a one-sided forum in which researchers vent their frustration at the oversight of university administrators, particularly those whose power to delay or modify research is seen as uninformed, arbitrary, or inappropriately interfering with academic freedom . . .

At an interpersonal level, too, some of the juiciest tales around consist of academic horror stories involving abusive administrators, murky guidelines, missed deadlines, and research plans gone terribly awry, all in the name of human subjects protection . . .

Although these tales provide ample opportunity for peer bonding (and, I’ll admit it, the sheer entertainment value of some of them is quite high), and although some of them undoubtedly contain more than a kernel of truth, we wish to take a more constructive approach. To put it bluntly, human subjects oversight is here to stay: Now what?

In other words, Price believes that documentation of IRB abuse and calls for structural relief are not constructive, apparently since she thinks that federal regulations are immutable.

The focus section emerged from presentations at the Association of American Geographers annual meeting in 2009. Obviously, neither then nor during the preparation of the journal issue could Price have known that the ANPRM was coming, but she did have access to proposals for structural reform, such as the 2005 Illinois White Paper (which she cites in her own contribution to the Focus Section) and the 2006 AAUP report, not to mention the impressive revision process in Canada. And a broader understanding of the history of IRB policy would have told her that the assemblage of "academic horror stories" led to the establishment of the exemption procedures that she praises in her own article.

I would say that an "oversimplified picture" of the IRB debate is one that denies the achievements of generations of IRB critics and offers the unqualified claim that "human subjects oversight is here to stay."

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