Science Leadership Conference

Scientists often complain that different institutional review boards (IRBs) come to different decisions, even when reviewing the exact same research proposal, said Ivor Pritchard, PhD, at a 2006 APA Science Leadership Conference session. While one board might rule that an experiment is too risky for human participants, another may judge that the benefits are worth the risks, said Pritchard, senior fellow at the Office for Human Research Protections at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Such inconsistencies often frustrate researchers and suggest that at least one of the IRBs is coming to the wrong decision, Pritchard said.

However, psychologists can play a major role in improving the consistency of IRB decisions, by sharing their expertise on human and group behavior, he said.

"IRB members...are human beings," Pritchard said. "And there are some people, called psychologists, who know something about the patterns and eccentricities of psychological behavior."

Current attempts to improve IRBs focus on educating board members about federal rules and standards, said Pritchard. But even with perfect knowledge, different boards will probably come to different conclusions because people do not always act rationally, he noted. For instance, past research has shown that people tend to underestimate the risk of familiar procedures.

"If you have a pediatric oncologist who is used to working with kids who are undergoing chemotherapy treatment, that oncologist is likely to view the risks as being lesser than those of someone who simply has no experience with chemotherapy," Pritchard said.

Due to this tendency, IRBs that have many behavioral scientists as members are likely to see common surveys as less risky than IRBs with a preponderance of pediatric oncologists, he noted.

Personality differences also lead to variation among IRB decisions, said Pritchard. Barry Schwartz, PhD, a professor of social theory at Swarthmore College, divides people into two categories: maximizers and satisficers. Maximizers are driven to discover the very best decision-they are the people who will look at every single cereal in a grocery store before buying one. Satisficers are happy with a good enough choice-they'll buy the first box of reasonably priced corn flakes they see.

IRBs with a majority of maximizers will take longer to come to decisions than IRBs with many satisficers, he noted. What's more, they will come to different kinds of decisions, with the maximizers perhaps requesting more changes to an experiment after having weighed every possible option.

Understanding these and other factors that influence IRB decision-making should inform efforts to improve IRBs, Pritchard concluded."If psychologists can tell us what the patterns are that influence IRB decision-making, then either through the selection of IRB members or the education of IRB members, or through the ways in which we write the research protocols...we ought to be able to control at least some of the variation in decisions," he said.

-S. Dingfelder