How to “know it when you see it”

As an IRB chair, one specific goal I had for the 2016 AER Conference was to figure out the best way to help educate my board and faculty about what is, and what is not, research. While I heard the concept of “IRB creep” regularly at the conference, our IRB is too new, and its members too inexperienced, to currently have this problem. Instead, I wanted to focus on figuring out best practices for how to inform my community on what it is we do, how we do it, and how we can help create more research opportunities at Nashua Community College (NCC).

The presenters, Julie Kaneshiro, Cheri Pettey, and Ada Sue Selwitz for Didactic Session A4, “You’ll Know It When You See It: Defining ‘Human Subjects Research’ Under the DHHS Regulations not only covered the material in the course objectives, they also inspired me on to how to help explain the NCC Ethics Review Board and how we can do to help.

The initial portion of the session split the major concepts into quick, easy-to-understand bites. In walking through the major aspects of the regulations, the presenters highlighted the important aspects within them; these four areas were then repeated by the other two presenters, who focused on the process of the regulations. Though my board is familiar with considering (1) is a project research, (2) does it involve human subjects, (3) is it eligible for exemption, and (4) is the institution engaged, my faculty are not (yet). The presentation underlined an easy to navigate way to explain the concepts.

Though the whole presentation was effective, my favorite part was Ms. Pettey’s section on research case studies. In addition to reiterating the four questions noted above, each case study explained additional important questions to ask and how each answer fit into the DHHS definitions. Furthermore, if the case was deemed “not research,” Ms. Pettey also explained what would make a project research. The “But what if…” modifications to the case study underscored the importance of intent in regards to research, as well as what questions to consider in clarifying a researcher’s intentions.

Finally, this presentation began to define the concept of a human research protection program (HRPP) for me – beyond “just” an IRB. I attended a few other sessions on the concept (Didactic Session B23, “Building and Maintaining an HRPP Within a Primarily SBER Institution with a Small Research Portfolio” was also particularly helpful). Thus far, I have concentrated on the immediate needs of my IRB, but the idea of broadening our focus to include a culture of research and research ethics greatly appeals to my background in anthropology. Even if not all projects qualify as ”research-with-a-big-R”, I now better understand the benefit of having a research policy, separate from the IRB board’s findings.

Aimee E. Huard, PhD, associate professor of social sciences and chair of the Ethical Research Board at Nashua Community College, is a member of the PRIM&R Blog Squad for the 2016 AER Conference. The PRIM&R Blog Squad is composed of PRIM&R members who are blogging here, on Ampersand, to give our readers an inside peek of what happened at the conference in Anaheim, CA.