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    Friday, December 30, 2005

    The University IRB System

    This system is one of the worst, most bloated, corrupt beauracracies in America's college system today. At The Volokh Conspiracy, Jim Lindgren calls the university IRB system unconstitutional. His premise is this:
    Imagine that I want to write a research article about government abuses of power. I plan to visit a library to look at the public papers of a living person (or a dead person whose papers might embarrass a living person). In most universities, I would be prohibited by federal law--as aggressively interpreted by the federal government--from going to that library without getting PRIOR APPROVAL of a committee set up under federal law, populated with some people outside my university, deciding whether I was allowed to visit the library and read the papers I want to read. If the government had only the desire to check into where I went and what I read after the fact, that would be a serious, though comparatively minor, restriction. No, I am required to get prior approval.

    ... the current system is much like the English 17th century censorship system that the US Constitutional framers wanted to prohibit when they adopted the First Amendment. In late 17th century England, people had to get the permission of censors before publishing books. But in most fields, the 17th century crown did not do the censorship itself; much like today, the government delegated the task to the universities. But 17th century censorship was not as far-reaching as the current system, since only publication without permission was prohibited, not the research itself (as in the current system). And it appears that 17th century censors may have been less intrusive than current-day IRBs. It was precisely to prevent a censorship system such as we have today that the First Amendment was passed.

    ... It is time for the courts to declare the IRB system what it is: unconstitutional.
    I must leave the question of constitutionality to those like Jim who are far more versed in law than I am, but I do have intimate experience with the absurdities of the current system.

    My wife recently applied to her university to do an internship. She is required to do an internship to complete her major. Most students, because of many reasons including ease and the IRB, do their internships at small non-governmental organizations in and around the university. She is studying public health. Through her own initiative, my wife set up an internship working with public policy makers to set policy for children influenced by HIV in their families. However, our university IRB designates these children as a "high risk group" requiring IRB approval.

    Nevermind that she is merely an intern for a major international NGO, which had already set up the study. My wife merely jumps on board an already moving train and learns how to be the conductor.

    And so the IRB board denied her research. They stated that it was not a true research project, and not underneath their purview at first, but then denied it anyway because she could not give them satisfactory questinaires and consent forms. How could she? Those items come from her NGO and they are already doing the research. They will not change their standard forms--forms ok for use with governments all over the world--because one IRB board dislikes them.

    So, somehow my wife qualified for a scholarship because of the merit of her internship, but it wasn't good enough to get IRB approval, and therefore (according to university bylaws) she can't cash in that scholarship.

    What happens at my university? Nobody gets IRB approval. I spoke with a VP over Academic Affairs who told me that she should have been informed of her need to get IRB approval from the begininning genesis of her project. My wife was not. Nobody told her. Why? Nobody wants to get approval. If there is any way to just do the research and ask for forgiveness later, they will do it, because the IRB often denies well setup, credible research.

    If the university setting is an opt-in affair where adults pay an organization to get an education, the university should trust the adults to take managed risks. If the university is worried that something will look bad, it should draft whatever documents make it feel good that it informed the student of all problems and risks and the experiment plus all problems are the responsibility of the student.

    The real loser in all of this is my wife. She is still doing the internship (without the scholarship) and she has no way of retaliating. There is no method for fighting for (what I perceive as) her right to do what research she wants. She have no way of fighting the IRB decision. All she can do is rant, and she leaves that to me. Frustrating.

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