Friday, January 10, 2014

Incremental progress against bureaucracy run amok

One of the principles of bureaucracy is power, once seizes, is never voluntarily relinquished.

A major problem for a small number of Americans is the tyranny of the local Institutional Review Board (aka “Human Subjects” committee). Originally created to prevent physical harm to humans from new substances or devices, their domain expanded to include psychological harm after the notorious Milgram experiments. As with any excess of power or authority, good intentions to solve a real problem were used to justify mission creep and a power grab.

This morning, our trade journal (the Chronicle of Higher Education) reported progress on this front:

January 10, 2014

National Research Council Panel Seeks Rules Overhaul on Human-Subjects Studies
By Paul Basken

The long-snarled bid to revise federal rules governing research on human subjects got a boost on Thursday with a National Research Council analysis that endorsed a substantial overhaul.

In a 139-page report, a 15-member panel assisted by dozens of field-specific experts, mostly from American universities, backed changes that include exempting many social-science researchers—such as those conducting oral histories—from the current set of rules.
The problem is that merely talking to (adult) people subjects researchers to this bureaucratic oversight. As the Chronicle reported in the summer of 2011:
Since the federal government began to establish stringent ethical oversight of medical research in the 1970s, institutional review boards like Hunter's have become a regular feature in the bureaucratic landscape of American colleges and universities, with the responsibility of safeguarding the rights of individuals who become subjects of research. While it is clear that vaccine trials and experimental drug tests demand a watchful eye from the outside, cases like Ms. [Bernadette] McCauley's are less cut and dried.

Institutional review boards have purview over any research on "human subjects" that creates "generalizable knowledge," but whether that murky definition encompasses or excludes conducting interviews, obtaining oral histories, or doing other types of humanities research involving living people has largely been left up to individual institutions, creating decades of inconsistent policy toward the disciplines.

"It's not clear to me what kind of harm you can do to somebody by interviewing them for an oral history," Mr. [Robert] Townsend says.

In the past, members of his organization have complained that institutional review boards insisted that historians keep their interview subjects anonymous to protect their privacy or avoid topics that might upset or embarrass them.

While perhaps reasonable in scientific or behavioral research, Mr. Townsend says, those demands go against the fiber of historical inquiry, where the credibility of an interview often depends on the researcher and reader knowing who the narrator is. And why, historians ask, shouldn't consenting adults be allowed to decide for themselves what subjects they feel comfortable discussing?

"A lot of the people on these review boards are amateurs when it comes to the humanities and social sciences," Mr. Townsend says. "So they filter those proposals narrowly through the written rules to make sure they are compliant."

That can lead to boards imposing onerous conditions on scholars conducting interviews, like requiring them to provide an advance list of the exact questions they will ask—something that can be nearly impossible to do for a personal interview that is intended to be open-ended. And review boards have been known to tell researchers that they must destroy their tapes after the research project is complete to safeguard their subjects.
Unfortunately, the latest article implies that little progress has been made in the past 29 months.

Perhaps the publication of the report by the National Academies will prompt local IRBs to reconsider. However, given the self-perpetuating nature of bureaucracies and the glacial rate of change in academia, there’s not a reason for hope.

Note to readers: I apologize for the slow rate of postings during fall, due to increased professional and personal responsibilities. In the next month, I hope to resume weekly (or nearly-weekly) postings.

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