Perhaps the fact that a mandatory online training course exists should have tipped me off, but it was still surprising how very bureaucratic institutional review board (IRB) procedures appear to be. That said, I think this is a bureaucracy that we are better with than without. While some standards may appear onerous, IRB boards don’t only serve to protect scientists from ethical concerns, but their stringent procedures may also actually help restore some of the faith that the public has lost in science.
In response to ethically questionable experiments, such as the Milgram shock experiment, the Stanford prison experiment, and, most notoriously, the Tuskegee syphilis trials, the federal government issued the Belmont Report, which ultimately led to the establishment of numerous federal research guidelines and the establishment of IRBs at universities and other research institutions. While the premise of scientists policing themselves might not appear to be a trustworthy venture at face value, this arrangement is more nuanced than it might appear. IRBs not only require the presence of a member who is not associated with the institution, but also the presence of a non-scientist member. Furthermore, efforts must be made to ensure that IRBs are not representative of only one gender. The diverse membership that these procedures create help ensure that IRBs respect multiple perspectives when reviewing proposals.
There are numerous ethical concerns that IRBs are concerned with, but they’re broadly concerned with the three recommendations of the Belmont Report: respect for persons, beneficence and justice. IRBs primarily ensure respect for persons through high standards of informed consent – by ensuring that participants in research understand the aims and potential risks of the study. One of the most appalling aspects of the Tuskegee syphilis trials was the fact that the participants were unaware they were participating in research, and unaware of the disease that was being studied, so powerful informed consent procedures can help safeguard from such an incident occurring again (also of importance: IRBs enforce several extra precautionary measures when dealing with medical research). Beneficence, defined as the normative goal of maximizing potential benefits and minimizing harm, ensures that potentially harmful research is actually worth doing and not only of interest to a handful of scientists. One of the frequent criticisms of the Milgram shock experiment was that it potentially harmed the research subjects while failing to adequately address a worthwhile research question. Milgram said that the goal of the experiment was to understand if obedience could explain Nazi war atrocities, but critics rejected the study as unable to adequately address this research question. Finally, there is the issue of justice, which, in the context of the Belmont Report, strives to ensure that potential harm is distributed equally and fairly across research participants and populations. This concept is exemplified well in the previously discussed examples of IRB concerns, but one additional way that justice is ensured is by applying special protections to at-risk populations such as youth and the incarcerated. Special consideration must be given not only to those who are legally unable to consent, but also to those who may be coerced into participation in research through various mechanisms that researchers cannot control.
Some might be concerned that these protections are too prohibitory, and that powerful research cannot be achieved anymore. This is where IRB deliberation is often most important. IRBs help determine when the use of deception is worthwhile and appropriate, as well as waiving informed consent procedures when necessary. Conversely, a lot of research (such as survey research) is entirely benign and, therefore, criteria exist for expediting or bypassing IRB review when appropriate. As a researcher in the social sciences, I would expect my work to fall in the latter category, but I endorse the idea of ensuring that all researchers are thoroughly educated in ethical matters anyways.