Reforming Institutional Reviews

The 2014 College Rankings aren’t the only higher education brain-food in the new issue of the Washington Monthly. There’s also an analysis by George Mason University’s Zachary Schrag on academic Institutional Review Boards, a federally required process for protecting the human subjects of research originally motivated by abuses in medical studies that now pervasively regulates–and often unnecessarily inhibits–all sorts of social science research as well.

[I]n practice IRB review too often turns into a farcical imitation of ethical deliberation, as boards obsess over typographical errors or wildly improbable dangers while ignoring empirical evidence about the kinds of research that have caused trouble in the past. Like other forms of over-bureaucratization, they can do real damage to universities.

Most obviously, IRBs hinder research through simple delay. Even the most basic reviews can take weeks, while a more complex review by the full IRB can take many months. Since IRBs often only meet monthly, multiple revisions make the process drag on…. When Northwestern University professor Brian Mustanski sought clearance for a foundation-funded study of young members of sexual minorities, multiple rounds of IRB review consumed ten of the twenty-four months of funding. Fortunately, Mustanski was able to persuade the IRB to retract its demand for parental permission; had he confined his study to youth willing to involve their parents, it would have skewed his results.

Schrag offers some suggestions for reasonable reforms in the IRB process, and notes with forelorn hope occasional federal impulses towards self-reform. It’s a subject that ought to equally interest those championing regulatory as well as academic modernization.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.