On a Friday afternoon, I usually prefer to pour a glass of wine, make a nice casserole, and play Dr. Pangloss, meditating on how I live in the best of all possible worlds. Never mind the large pile of laundry, our unfinished tax returns, and a congested sinus that has me fantasizing about taking a drill to my face.
But today, I'm stuck in a meditation on how we seem to be living in the worst of all possible worlds where IRBs are concerned.
Let's review: Institutional Review Boards (IRBs) were set up with the ostensible goal of protecting people who became subjects of medical research. They were set up out of the recognition that researchers have a bad habit of thinking that good intentions inevitably pave the way to heaven. (Aphorisms don't apply to smart people, right?)
Today, many social scientists are quite reasonably fed up with the way in which IRBs have evolved to the point where they attempt to hyper-regulate our work, often forcing us to adhere to systems that make no sense for our disciplines. Historians like me have refused to engage with IRBs when we conduct oral histories, knowing we are sometimes asked to do things like anonymize our subjects, ask all our subjects the same questions, or destroy our records after a few years. (If you want to read about how abused social scientists have been in the history of IRBs, I highly recommend Zack Schrag's Ethical Imperialism. Also check out Zack's blog.)