Science Directions

Conducting research with human participants is an essential part of what scientific psychology is all about. For more than a century, psychologists have balanced their quest for new knowledge with legal, ethical and moral obligations. Over time, public concern and the regulatory burden has grown. Recipients of federal research grants must now complete education and training in the protection of human participants, and institutional review boards (IRBs) have assumed a more prominent role in the oversight of human research.

APA has always taken a leadership role when it comes to human research participant protection. In 1978, APA established a Committee for the Protection of Human Participants in Research to monitor and respond to legislative, regulatory, educational and accountability concerns. By 1993, a consensus was emerging that a stable and widely accepted system of research oversight was in place. Things were quiet on the human research protection front, and so the committee shut down.

APA staff continued to monitor the legislative and regulatory issues and develop educational programs for the research community. When the standing committee was sunset, the Science Directorate established an Office for Research Ethics to make sure that APA remained at the forefront of human research participant protection.

The smooth sailing did not last very long. By the late 1990s, researchers and IRBs were experiencing growing concerns as the result of increased scrutiny of the research regulation and oversight system. It was lapses in the conduct of biomedical research that sparked the increased scrutiny, but the ensuing changes in the regulatory oversight system had a direct impact on behavioral and psychological research.

Psychologists have felt this impact most notably in their relationships with IRBs. Indeed, the "IRB problem" has received considerable attention over the past few years. Symposia, conferences, white papers and government review panels have been focusing on IRBs.

Consensus is now building that discipline-specific education is what we need to resolve the growing tension. We need evidence and data—not anecdotes—to guide us through the regulations and lead us to a better understanding of human research participant protection. Disciplinary societies need to collaborate with regulatory agencies and oversight bodies to advance research ethics while promoting scientifically and ethically sound research.

APA responds

In response to the changing times, APA has created a new Committee on Human Research (CHR), with a mission of facilitating research with human participants in a way that complies with prevailing ethical principles and governmental regulations. The committee will also examine issues regarding the formulation and implementation of such principles and regulations.

The Committee on Human Research will address such topics as confidentiality, decisional capacity, diversity of research populations, research dissemination, cross-disciplinary standards, international collaborations, and resource and data sharing. The new committee will also engage in educational and advocacy efforts in the realm of human research protections.

A call for nominations to serve on the CHR will be posted very soon. Nominations are encouraged to represent a wide range of research topics, populations, settings and methodologies. It is important that the members of the CHR be currently or recently engaged in research with human participants and have served on an IRB or similar body.

The challenges associated with the conduct of human research continue to grow. We bear collective responsibility for ensuring the health and vitality of research with human participants. We are working in a time of heightened concern and scrutiny, but psychologists are especially capable of doing their work in a way that preserves high ethical standards and strong moral principles. The new APA Committee on Human Research will help steer us in the right direction.