L. L. Wynn, an anthropologist at Macquarie University and a member of that university’s Human Research Ethics Committee, spoke to 40 teachers and administrators at 14 Australian universities. She finds that “opportunities for independent undergraduate human research are being eroded by expanding ethics bureaucracies” and that “the ethics review process [is] a significant obstacle to universities and teachers who wish to incorporate original human research into the curriculum.” (7) She calls for the devolution of ethics review to individual departments.
[L. L. Wynn, “The Impact of Ethics Review on a Research-Led University Curriculum Results of a Qualitative Study in Australia,” Journal of Empirical Research on Human Research Ethics, Published online before print, March 16, 2016, doi:10.1177/1556264616636234.]
Wynn’s informants tell her that ethics boards display “biomedical or clinical bias,” that they delay student work by months, that they discourage bold questions about sexuality and mental health, and instead steer students into “much more generic, low-risk research that may actually not be all that interesting.” (5)
As Wynn acknowledges, such complaints will be familiar to those who have read the existing literature on ethics review of the social sciences, including Wynn’s own 2011 article, “Ethnographers’ Experiences of Institutional Ethics Oversight: Results from a Quantitative and Qualitative Survey,” which it was my privilege to edit.
Her chief contribution here is not documenting the problem, but forcefully advocating for a solution: departmental-level review. She writes than Australian university psychology department, which has such a practice, serves as “the single best-practice case that I identified during this research.” (9) Because that department monitors only psychology, it can use simplified forms and offer quick review, averaging only three days. Yet the overall regime is robust, incorporating ethics training throughout the curriculum and achieving 100 percent participation by researchers, rather than the IRB evasion common elsewhere.
(Not cited in Wynn’s article is Dan Trudeau, “IRBs as Asset for Ethics Education in Geography,” Professional Geographer 64, no. 1 (2012): 25–33, which also finds benefits in devolution. See “Can Macalester’s Divisional Review Work Elsewhere?”)
The benefits of locating HREC review within departments are many. In addition to addressing researcher complaints that ethics committees do not understand their disciplinary methods, it would also decrease the workload of ethics secretariats, which are increasingly burdened as universities try to increase their research activity. It could dramatically improve the efficiency of the ethics review process. Smaller, more local committees are more flexible and can meet as often as needed. (9)
This will not solve all problems. Wynn concedes, “one potential negative to local review, however, is that it could lead to pressure to make all student research projects low-risk—thus, potentially, low-impact—to facilitate review.” Still, it sounds a good deal more promising than the system now in place.