Reforming the Non-Medical IRB: A Shift from Preventing Harm to Doing Good
As some of you know (grandma), my area is law and mind sciences. To date, most of my scholarship has involved applying existing insights from social psychology, social cognition, and other fields to legal topics. However, over the last few months, I’ve been working on designing a set of experiments with a cognitive psychologist and, as a result, I have had a chance to engage the institutional review board process for the first time.
I must say that while the people running the IRBs at Drexel and Penn seem well-intentioned and nice enough, the process is utterly befuddling to me. As has been noted on this blog previously, more legal academics are doing work that is potentially covered by IRBs than ever before and it is worth pausing to think about whether radical changes to the existing approach are not appropriate.
(I certainly do not purport to be the first person to advocate reform in this area or to have thought about it as much as others; my hope is that this post will provoke some readers to consider their experiences and whether they feel like the current IRB process is worth its costs.)
I’d like to focus on the non-medical IRB (covering social and behavioral research, ethnography studies, etc.) and I’d like to propose eliminating review completely in this area. No more paper work, no more calls, no more meetings. Instead, we will simply rely on professional norms to channel behavior and existing legal mechanisms to deter the most harmful conduct. (I will leave to the side, in this post, the sticky issue of university liability.)
Now, this doesn’t mean that everyone is off the hook. All of the money and energy that universities currently expend on the IRB process will simply be redirected. The idea is to use resources to directly improve people’s lives, rather than to try to avoid harms that may or may not arise. All of the time previously spent on filling out paperwork, on the phone asking and answering questions, taking human subjects tests, and filing updates, among other things, would now be spent actively participating in socially-beneficial endeavors.
As a licensed attorney, what if I used every hour I would expend on IRB compliance volunteering at a legal aid clinic instead? Or what if I used that time to help high school students in north Philadelphia work on their college essays or removing trash from the Schuylkill River? What if all of the staff at the Office of Research Compliance spent their days finding and coordinating opportunities for professors to volunteer in the community? I would argue that the social good likely to result would considerably outweigh the potential costs of not subjecting non-medical experiments to formal review.
The truth is that the new regime would not be perfect—people would occasionally be harmed—but the magnitude of this threat might be less than imagined. When a person goes to design a psychology experiment there are many factors that act as constraints on the design: Do my colleagues approve of my proposal? Will members of my field look favorably on this experiment? Will resulting harms negatively impact my tenure review (remember that Stanley Milgram was denied tenure at Harvard)? Does this align with my sense of morality? Will my friends/parents/wife/children think less of me if someone is hurt on my watch? How does this experiment compare to other experiments that were conducted in the past and how did people react to those projects?
The IRB process is not the primary reason why the vast majority of non-medical experiments today do not pose major risks to human subjects. It would seem to me that while the process prevents some harms, it does not prevent enough to justify its existence and thinking of alternative uses of the resources currently dedicated to IRBs has the potential to leave us all better off.