It’s More Than Meets the IRB

by Michael Leary, MA, CIP, Education and Compliance Specialist in the Human Research Protection Office at Washington University in St. Louis

There is an odd thing happening to institutional review boards (IRBs); they are becoming interesting. We are all familiar with the classic perception of the IRB as yet another administrative burden tucked away in the research process. But at many institutions, this perception is shifting. With the publication of books like Laura Stark’s Behind Closed Doors: IRBs and the Making of Ethical Research, and the steady increase in reporting and editorials on research ethics issues in our most widely-read news outlets, the general public is also starting to understand the historic significance of our field.

At Washington University in St. Louis, we have a number of human research protection program (HRPP)-based educational and media resources that are geared toward making the IRB process more transparent and collaborative. This increases efficiency across the board. But more importantly,  these kinds of programs help stakeholders better understand the historical and ethical backgrounds of IRB review.

One of the programs we have created is More Than Meets the IRB, a podcast featuring interviews, panel discussions, and reviews of issues related to human research ethics. In this series, we discuss current events in the human research world, talk with investigators and research subjects, and review literature relevant to those interested in research ethics. Our first installment featured Rebecca Dresser and her recent book, Malignant: Medical Ethicists Confront Cancer. During that conversation we talked about the “ethics of survivorship,” the nuance of patient and participant autonomy, the recipe for a “fair offer,” and the role volunteerism plays in both the research and research ethics review process.

We have a future segment planned with Robert “Skip” Nelson, MD, PhD, senior pediatric ethicist at the Food and Drug Administration, about the participation of children in research. This podcast will address key ethical considerations in a way that will be informative even for those of us who have significant experience in applying subpart D. We will also be talking with Robert Levine, MD, professor of medicine and lecturer in pharmacology at Yale University, about the background and implementation of component analysis. Other podcasts about the proposed revisions to the Common Rule and transnational research ethics are in the planning stages.

These podcasts are not just of interest to researchers, IRB members, or HRPP staff, but are thought-provoking for an even wider audience. As noted above, IRBs and the issues faced during the review process are interesting to the general public, even though the topic is typically introduced only through the lens of scandal. While serving as a helpful resource for those in the IRB orbit, More Than Meets the IRB also hopes to engage public perceptions of research that involves human subjects and expose our communities to the rich ethical history of research.

We invite you to join us in this project. If you have any suggestions for future segments, don’t hesitate to share them in the comments.