Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Ethics Consultancies—A Non-Coercive Alternative to IRBs?

For some time, I've thought that the real problem with IRBs may be the coercive power granted to them. This relieves them of the need to make arguments strong enough to persuade researchers, and in some cases leads them instead to make demands based weak or even wrongheaded thinking.

This week, Nature reports on an alternative (or supplementary) model, the ethics consultancy.

[Dolgin, Elie. “Human-Subjects Research: The Ethics Squad.” Nature 514, no. 7523 (October 21, 2014): 418–20. doi:10.1038/514418a.]

As reporter Elie Dolgin explains,

Ethical dilemmas in research are nothing new; what is new is that scientists can go to formal ethics consultancies such as [Tomas] Silber's to get advice. Unlike the standard way that scientists receive ethical guidance, through institutional review boards (IRBs), these services offer non-binding counsel. And because they do not form part of the regulatory process, they can weigh in on a wider range of issues — from mundane matters of informed consent and study protocol to controversial topics such as the use of experimental Ebola treatments — and offer more creative solutions.

Technically, that's a non sequitur; there's no regulatory prohibition preventing IRBs from weighing in on controversial topics or offering creative solutions, only a bar to "consider[ing] possible long-range effects of applying knowledge gained in the research." In practice, the coercive nature of IRB review often makes researchers less receptive to IRB counsel and chokes off productive discussions.

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