Executive Director's Column

The IRB Problem: A Call to Arms

Going down the road of increased and organized activism carries with it the need for responsible action. We must never lose sight of the goal: protecting and respecting the people who participate in our research.

By Steven Breckler, PhD

Exactly one year ago, I used the space in this column to discuss the problem with IRBs - the frenzy building over the behavior of many Institutional Review Boards. I pointed out that we know remarkably little about the structure and function of IRBs, and reinforced the need for more data. I pointed to recent thoughtful discussions of the problem, and suggested that we need to take ownership of IRBs and get University administrations to understand that the success of their faculty depend on well-functioning IRBs.

Time to Take Action

I think we still do not have a good handle on the problem. We have plenty of symptoms, but still a poor understanding of the causes and what to do about them. We can, however, begin to take action.

APA is ramping up its own efforts. Next month's Science Leadership Conference will include a plenary session devoted to recent perspectives on IRBs, including the Illinois White Paper and a very recent report from the American Association of University Professors (AAUP). APA President-Elect Sharon Brehm has also appointed an APA task force to make recommendations for action.

In the meantime, I think we need to begin a more active grassroots effort to focus our collective attention on understanding and solving the problem.

What Action?

First, we need to start documenting best and worst practices. If the IRB at your institution is, in your view, an especially good or bad one, let me know. Send me an email, describing what you like or don't like about your IRB. Of particular interest are cases in which federally-funded research is being delayed because an IRB is challenging the scientific merit of the project.

Second, force the issue at the local level. Form a work group or committee at your institution, and investigate the structure and functioning of your IRB. Who appoints its members? What autonomy is the IRB given? Does the Dean or Provost have any control, or take any interest, in the functioning of the IRB? Let your administration know that you are sick and tired of the IRB problem, and that you are not going to take it any more.

Third, educate yourself. Read the recent reports and re-acquaint yourself with the federal regulations. Bookmark the website for the Office of Human Research Protections (OHRP) - it has a wealth of resources on IRBs. The APA Science Directorate's Office of Research Ethics offers additional resources. If your action is to be effective, you must know the facts and the arguments.

Seek Proper Balance

Going down the road of increased and organized activism carries with it the need for responsible action. We must never lose sight of the goal: protecting and respecting the people who participate in our research. This goal trumps all others. It is more important than the sanctity of academic freedom, and it is more important than protecting institutions from bad press.

We do have a problem on our hands. It can be resolved, but it will take work and persistence. This one is worth your time, energy, and attention. I urge you to get engaged and join the cause.