The APA Presidential Task Force on Institutional Review Boards and Psychological Science wants to make "exempt" research exempt and speed up the approval of "expedited" studies-all while maintaining, or even strengthening, protections for people participating as subjects.

APA organized the task force because of its concerns about the relationship between researchers and institutional review boards (IRBs), and anecdotal reports of conflict between them, said group chair Thomas Eissenberg, PhD, an associate professor at Virginia Commonwealth University.

The task force plans to start working on its final report this month, Eissenberg said.

All federally funded research institutions must have an IRB, which ensures that study participants' rights and welfare are protected. Researchers submit protocols to the IRBs detailing how studies will be conducted. At a university, IRB members are drawn from the academic community, with at least one non-academic member from the larger community.

During an APA Annual Convention session describing the task force's progress, Eissenberg cited anecdotes circulating within the research community about "seemingly nonsensical" requirements made by IRBs to research protocols-such as requiring researchers to collect written consent forms from a tribe that doesn't have a written language.

But, he emphasized, researchers are particularly concerned about IRBs evaluating potential risks inaccurately, as well as "mission creep"-whereby IRBs extend their reach to more studies in disciplines outside the biomedical and behavioral science realms.

Eissenberg said he and his fellow researchers believe the task force can help researchers and IRBs find common ground-with the goal of improving protection for human subjects, while reducing needless paperwork.

"We started to see it as an opportunity, to work to reduce regulatory burden, while facilitating the safe and ethical conduct of psychological science involving human participants," he said.

During their first meeting in March, the task force members identified what Eissenberg called the four "E's" that guide their work:

  • Examine potential modifications to the IRB system, such as reducing the time needed to determine whether a study is exempt, speeding up the review for minimal-risk research included in expedited review, and limiting IRB oversight once data collection is complete and contact with human subjects has ended.

  • Emphasize the need for data-driven improvements to that system, by determining whether "anecdotes" about researcher run-ins with IRBs are driving frustration with the overall system, deciding whether the task force can evaluate the effects of the proposed solutions and answering the question of whether changes will maintain participant rights and safety.

  • Educate IRBs about the research needs of psychological science, and educate investigators about IRBs' needs.

  • Encourage funding for research that supports evidence-based IRB policy, and funding for research on research ethics.

In Eissenberg's view, both sides need to see "the forest through the trees:" IRBs need to focus more on human participant protection, and less on rule-following, while researchers need to acknowledge that they sometimes become inured to the risks their work can pose to participants.

"We sometimes tend to gloss over some very real issues,'' he said.