President's Column

Editor's note: Dr. Sharon Stephens Brehm has invited the chairs of her presidential task forces to summarize their work. In this column, Thomas Eissenberg, PhD, associate professor in the department of psychology and Institute for Drug and Alcohol Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, addresses the Task Force on IRBs and Psychological Science.

Psychological researchers and Institutional Review Boards (IRBs) are committed to protecting human participants in research and the scientific enterprise. Despite these shared commitments, perceived challenges to academic freedom and increasing regulatory burden contribute to tension between researchers and IRBs. The APA Task Force on IRBs and Psychological Science, convened by APA President Sharon Stephens Brehm, PhD, is charged with identifying specific policies and practices that would assist IRBs and psychological scientists to reduce this tension. The task force, therefore, presents an important opportunity to enhance collaboration between IRBs and psychologists. Besides myself, the task force members are Monica Biernat, PhD, of the University of Kansas; Peter Finn, PhD, of Indiana University, Bloomington; Daniel Ilgen, PhD, of Michigan State University; Barbara Stanley, PhD, of Columbia University and John Jay College of the City University of New York; and Scyatta Wallace, PhD, of the State University of New York Downstate Medical Center. Sangeeta Panicker, PhD, director of APA's Office on Research Ethics, is the staff liaison.

To enhance the collaborative relationship between psychologists and IRBs, the task force will make recommendations to APA. They call for APA to:

  • Continue attention to IRB issues. APA should establish a continuing committee on ethical conduct in research with human participants. IRB issues are continually evolving and require ongoing and focused attention by experts within psychology. A continuing committee could develop guidance and resources to assist researchers who are navigating the route from proposal to implementation of their research at their individual institutions. The committee would develop, oversee and evaluate APA activities with regard to education, outreach and advocacy for collaborative interactions between IRBs and psychological scientists.

  • Empower researchers to engage with IRBs. APA should invest in training opportunities that will help psychological scientists maximize collaborative relationships between researchers and IRBs. Opportunities include workshops at the association's annual convention, training institutes for early-career psychologists, and curricular content on specific topics that could be incorporated into pre- and postdoctoral education. By understanding how IRBs use the regulations to review proposed studies, researchers can be better positioned to facilitate a working relationship that protects participants while promoting psychological science.

  • Help IRBs understand psychological science. Because some IRB-researcher tensions may arise from misunderstanding of psychological science, APA should also explore opportunities to help IRBs understand our work. For example, APA can partner with IRB-focused organizations to develop workshops on topics such as risk assessment, deception and community-based participatory research.

  • Work together to develop evidence-based IRB policies and procedures. Collaborative IRB/psychologist relationships may be enhanced by evidence-based IRB policy at the local and national levels. Thus, APA can strengthen its advocacy efforts to include federal and other funding streams that support research aimed at developing and evaluating improvements in IRB policy and procedures to facilitate safe and ethical research while minimizing regulatory burden. These policies and procedures might gain national support if APA also strengthened its advocacy for representation of psychology in regulatory agencies and affiliated groups.

  • Write scholarly articles. In addition to these specific recommendations, the task force will develop a series of scholarly articles suggesting how the conduct of psychological research with human participants can be facilitated while maintaining the highest level of human research protections. The articles will address models for streamlining the IRB process within the framework of current regulations, applying psychological science to risk assessment and decision-making in the IRB context, and understanding human participant protections in nontraditional research settings. For example, with regard to streamlining the review process, a greater reliance on existing exempt and expedited categories, along with more efficient procedures, could reduce IRB burdens while fostering a better working relationship. This series of articles is intended to raise awareness of the factors that underlie IRB researcher tensions and propose concrete solutions that address these factors systematically.

The overarching goal of the task force recommendations and other work products is to capitalize on the fact that IRBs and psychological researchers share common goals of protecting research participants and promoting sound science. By implementing the task force recommendations and highlighting the issues discussed in the scholarly articles, APA will play a central role in helping these two groups work together to meet their mutual objectives.