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17 September 2015

What's the Problem with the IRB?

I've been putting this post off for well over a year, and today, I'm finally getting it out of the way. This will likely be my final post on the topic. I was prompted to revisit the issue after reading this very friendly post from Contexts. This is my take on the problems with the IRB.

Overall, I would argue that IRB's generally do admirably, especially given their circumstances. That's not to say that they are perfect, however. Most importantly, those problems that do exist for IRB's do so simultaneously and interdependently at several different levels. Here are my notes on those:
  • Institutional
    • The federal government created IRB's, requires that institutions accepting federal funds adopt them, and sets the rules by which they function. It has long been agreed that the federal guidelines are based on biomedical ethical concerns that do not apply to social scientific research (which has exacerbated the cultural and interpersonal issues listed below). Fixes are in the works, but change comes slow through such bureaucracy.
    • As the local and public face of the IRB, the IRB chair often becomes the punching bag for those who for whatever reason do not acknowledge the larger constraints that are in place. The IRB chair is the concrete end of an abstract labyrinth.
  • Organizational
    • My employing institution, and as I understand it most institutions, chronically under-resources our IRB. Here is a short list of some specifics:
      • Our IRB has no support staff. All of the administrative work was handled by the chair, and all of the reviews were performed by faculty doing voluntary service.
      • Our IRB had no annual budget. That is not to say that the university didn't spend money; it did, on things like a submission system and a small stipend for the chair, but financing was a hidden issue over which the IRB had no authority.
      • Our administration only allowed for inadequate course release for the chair, granting only a single course release for an entire academic year.
      • Our administration only granted a woefully inadequate stipend for the chair in comparison to the additional work requirements.
      • This isn't necessarily about resources (perhaps as human or social capital), but our university was willing to allow a faculty member without tenure (i.e. moi) to serve as chair, a problem for many reason that I won't take up here.
  • Cultural
    • Academics as a group generally neither respect the need for IRB's nor understand how they function. I think this is partly a function of the type of person who selects into the academe, but mostly, the blame here lies with a failure of graduate programs working with human subjects to adequately train future faculty in the history and ethics of human subjects research. (This hostile culture unarguably exacerbates the interpersonal issues below.)
  • Interpersonal
    • There are difficult people in the world, and they are over-represented among academics. There are many among us with inflated yet fragile egos.
      • internal
        • Though the decided minority, IRB members themselves can be surprisingly quite difficult. One can often ignore outside agitators, but it's not as easy to deal with internal contention.
      • external
        • Every institution has a handful of problem children who are consistently and predictably difficult to deal with. I recall an email exchange with one researcher who complained that the review of his protocol was taking too long, and this was only a week after having submitted his application. When I politely informed him that our IRB had a turnaround time that was on par with peer IRB's, he scolded me and said that our goal should be to be better than our peers. It is said that you can please all of the people some of the time and some of the people all of the time, but in my experience, there are some people who refused to be pleased in this life.

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