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15 May 2012

Pulling Back the Curtain on IRB's

I returned today from an extended weekend of travel. Late last week, I attended a national conference for IRB leaders in Atlanta. (I am the chair-elect of our IRB at Georgia College.) The conference was illuminating in two ways, one generally positive, the other not so much.

First, I heard a few presentations from a representative of the Office for Human Research Protections (OHRP) that were very informative. For example, I now better understand the federal regulations regarding informed consent and when it can be waived. These folks take their work very seriously, and their website really should get a lot more traffic from any sociologist engaging in human subjects research.

Second, however, there was a serious lack of understanding among virtually all of the attendees, presenters, and organizers about the social/behavioral sciences and a general lack of social awareness. As far as I could gather, I was one of only two attendees (out of approximately 50) who was not a bioethicist or in some way attached to a bio-medical IRB. While social research issues did occasionally come up, there was a general dismissiveness of the possible risks associated with such methods. (In some ways, this is understandable for a group of people used to discussing whether or not it is OK to inject a person with potentially lethal substances. As sociologists, afterall, there is no risk of someone bleeding out on the table as there is for those who do medical research, but social risk is nonetheless real and can destroy lives.) On the other hand, the only session specifically on a social research method was presented by a bioethicist with zero firsthand experience in social research methods. The session attempted to tackle social media research (e.g. on Facebook), but all of the discussion and conclusions were woefully behind-the-times. The example we focused on was a researcher hoping to covertly join an online chat room (Do these even still exist?) for cutters. Correctly, several in the audience questioned whether there was a method short of deception that could elicit the same results. Incorrectly, though, they all agreed very quickly that there was. "Why not just interview them?" Practices like cutting are wrought with stigma and are highly deviant. There is a strong argument to be made that deception is necessary and warranted. It's also very difficult to take a presenter seriously who mistakenly calls MySpace "MySite."

Oh, and did you know that instead of including women on an IRB committee it is acceptable to substitute a male OB/GYN because he has an understanding of women's issues and experiences? That was one suggestion in the discussion of a mock IRB on stem cell research in which the organizer failed to include any women.

More on all this soon.

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