To conduct research on the effectiveness of the mentoring program we’re rolling out on the Boston University Medical Campus, I have been revising an application to the Institutional Review Board. The IRB oversees all research with human subjects to make sure investigators comply with federal regulations.
The motivation for such an oversight body is admirable. Especially with biomedical research, the potential for harm to research subjects is too great to go unchecked. But when it comes to more psycho-social research like the evaluation project I am proposing, the board’s requirements can be cumbersome.
A New York Times article from 2007 points out the mission creep of IRBs, which originally applied just to research sponsored by federal grants. As universities require social scientists to go through the process, some of the protections for subjects end up sounding absurd. What’s more, the regulations may interfere with a scholar’s first amendment right to study and publish freely. I think of the New York Times itself, which does not have to seek any external approval before it writes potentially harmful pieces about subjects in the news.
In the end, though, the process of crafting an IRB application has been helpful for clarifying the safeguards my study has in place to protect research subjects. If it takes a cumbersome on-line form to get researchers to consider the ethical implications of their studies, then it’s a worthwhile cost.