John Mueller
"The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed
(and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with
an endless series of hobgoblins, most of them imaginary."
H. L. Mencken (1922)
No animals or ethicists were harmed during this work,
nor IRBs consulted.


Is it just the usual bureaucratic and governmental waste and incompetence, or is it social engineering? Of course, it could be both.

Do we really need Institutional Review Boards (IRB) or Research Ethics Boards (REB) for research in the Social Sciences and Humanities? I don't think the case has been shown, and it will not be as long as the focus is on compliance rather than effectiveness.

Several years ago I suffered with an Honors student, waiting five months (plus) to get permission to administer a commonly used self-efficacy questionnaire to college students. This student barely finished in time, and decided not to pursue a research career in Psychology, a decision one now sees with some regularity.

I decided to examine the research ethics industry more closely. This page compiles some of what I've found, and frankly it isn't pretty. This enterprise has unnecessarily stifled social sciences and humanities research for over 30 years, with no evidence of need, no evidence of benefit, and no concern for the lack of evidence. In fact, there is better evidence for the waste and out-right abuse associated with IRB/REB activity.

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Some of the early thoughts have been published in some pieces in the American Psychological Society Observer: Of course, letters and essays such as these are read by researchers, and not by regulators and ethicists, neither of whom care a bit for data. It is difficult to get contrarian ideas into a public forum, as most formats are dominated by "This is the law," and "This is 'the right thing to do'" -- no need for evidence with those pulpits. Such reasons seem unethical, to me, and certainly are not scientific.

NOTE: I have had the pleasure of regular companions in experessing some of these opinions, in the persons of John Furedy, Clive Seligman, and Steve Lupker. JOHN FUREDY has been a critic longer than I have, and he has a research ethics page of his own with some of his early writings.

1. In the spring of 2006, a symposium was held at Northwestern University by the Law Schools of Northwestern University and the University of Chicago, entitled "Censorship and IRBs". The papers from that have now been published and are available on-line at Northwestern University Law Review, 2007, v. 101(2).

2. Symposium at the American Psychological Association Convention, San Francisco, August 19, 2007: "Human Subject Protection, Academic Freedom and the First Amendment: Can't We Have It All?" This symposium involved papers by Michael Birnbaum, Richard O'Brien, and John J. Furedy. Their abstracts can be downloaded here, and the authors contacted for more.

There was not time for me to present, but had there been it would have been along the lines of this.

APA Division One Newsletter report on the 2007 symposium (PDF), and more.

A symposium at the American Psychological Association convention (July 29, 2004, Honolulu),
"Protecting Science and Academic Freedom from Institutional Review Boards".

APA Division One Newsletter summary of the symposium (PDF) (HTML format here, at SAFS).
The five people in this symposium all made excellent points about problems with the research ethics industry. The symposium participants were:

  • KURT SALZINGER (Hofstra): Chair & Discussant (Can we just eliminate IRBs and license researchers like we do therapists?)
  • HAROLD TAKOOSHIAN (Fordham): "An impressive solution to a nonproblem" (Can we implement a 'Bill of Rights' for researchers?)
  • JOHN H. MUELLER (Calgary): "Best practices: What perspective, what evidence?" (Why aren't we collecting evidence re effectiveness?)
  • RICHARD M. O'BRIEN (Hofstra): "Galileo 1 - Pope Urban 0: How we learned to limit our IRB" (Can we bring IRB decisions into Collective Bargaining Agreements as grievable?)
  • JOHN J. FUREDY (Toronto): "Taxonomic chaos in the Canadian bioethics industry: Apres Moi la Deluge" (Why are IRBs confusing epistemology with 'ethics'?)

Several of the symposium articles are reprinted in the Journal of Social Distress and Homelessness, 2006, 15 (#1) (or obtainable by clicking an e-mail to the author above).

Some other recent efforts to offset the compliance obsession:

It is encouraging that others are noticing some of the same things.

Terminology seems fuzzy as to what to call the "beings" in our research. There is a commentary on this here, and then a response here. The latter seems to me to convey an attitude that speaks volumes?

The research ethics industry habitually refers to historical (medical) problem cases as justifying present-day expansion of REBs (IRBs). I find little merit in these claims, it's just a disingenuous scare tactic. Current IRB/REB procedures would not have prevented these historical abuses, so they are logically irrelevant to present practices. Interestingly most of the classic horror stories involve research by government agencies, yet we have a government agency (e.g., OHRP) lecturing us on ethics.

It has long been acknowledged that federal funds can corrupt scholarship, for example: "The prospect of domination of the nation's scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present -- and is gravely to be regarded", Dwight Eisenhower, Presidential Farewell Address, Jan. 17, 1961. Universities have been bought by federal grant agencies, and they seem quite happy to put up with IRBs to stay bought.

One wonders just how much impact "public consultations" have, but you have to try. Canada is in the process of revising some of its policies, and here are some commentaries re social science research from SAFS:


BIGFOOT? In the specific case of social and behavioral sciences research, in spite of several inquires in recent years, I have as yet to find that subject who was harmed in such research. In fact, there is more concrete evidence presented in support of Sasquatch than for a harmed subject in social and behavioral science research!

Once upon a time life was tougher, so were we! It's amazing, we're all descended from people who coped with REAL problems, e.g., the Bubonic plague, even historical epochs of global warming (and cooling). However, today so many people can't even handle being "offended" or "insulted." Shouldn't we be a bit concerned about the future of the species when we can't handle even minor annoyances?

Possibly the saddest obituary ever written?

Unfortunately, after 30 years of IRB/REB "development" it may be especially difficult to make changes, as explained here.

Further discussion of related issues can be found at Zero Tolerance Disorder. (working draft)

It is estimated (JAMA, 2000) that there are 120,000 doctor-caused deaths in the USA every year. (Actually this is perhaps low, as it is only incidents in hospitals where reporting is required, so it does not include out-patient incidents. This statistic is sometimes disingenuously labeled "Iatrogenic Disease," but it is hardly a 'disease' as most of us understand that term!)

The research sector, even in medical research, looks quite capable in comparison, eh? Further, this statistic lends itself to some other interesting relative-risk comparisons. Everyday risk is something about which too many people have absolutely no understanding. This may be the reasonable consequence of a concerted effort to convince people that a zero-risk world is achievable.