Preparing the next generation of professionals in human subject protections

We are thrilled to welcome guest blogger Nick Slack, director of consulting services at the HRP Consulting Group, to Ampersand.

We are all here by accident—or at least that’s what we keep telling each other. When human subject protections professionals get together at conferences and meetings, it’s hard to ignore the many serendipitous stories about how our colleagues entered the subject area from so many different and unintended career paths. And, while this grand accident has led to a unique and intellectually driven field characterized largely by its multi-disciplinary base of professionals, we are at a critical point in our domain’s history when we must realize that a career in human subject protections must stop being a fortuitous accident and start becoming an established profession. As the pioneers and current leadership of the field retire and move on, solidifying human subject protections as a viable and free-standing career path will be of great importance to the sustainability of its future.

One of the core goals of professionalizing the field of human subject protections should be to make becoming a “human subject professional” an intended career goal rather than an accident. It is difficult to conjure up images of a field that has advanced and evolved over time without first arriving at some agreed-upon norms for training its next generation of professionals. And so, in the same way that individuals intend on becoming doctors, teachers, or lawyers, one of our loftier goals should be to encourage university students to structure their educational paths around the goal of becoming an institutional review board (IRB) or human subject professional upon graduation. Such a goal requires strategies for raising awareness about career opportunities in the field of human subject protections as well as developing some agreed-upon credentials and experiences to prepare students for a profession in the field.

It goes without saying that in order for students to structure their education around becoming an IRB or human subject protections professional, they must first know that such a career is even possible. And, as those of us currently working in the discipline well know, the general population is mostly unaware that our profession exists at all. While it seems that students share in the naiveté of the general public, the university setting makes for fertile ground for introducing students to this emerging field and presenting them with another career opportunity that they may not previously have recognized as viable. This could certainly resonate with students seeking entry into a competitive knowledge-based economic environment that values highly specialized skills and experiences. Students of philosophy, bioethics, psychology, public health, and the biological sciences all stand to gain from a profession where they can combine their academic interests with some additional and specialized training in human subject protections.

Organizations such as PRIM&R are in the best position to take the lead in raising awareness about careers in human subject protections. Using PRIM&R’s vast network of experts and affiliated institutions, a work group or subcommittee can be formed with the task of developing information about careers in human subject protections. This information can then be distributed to students through their academic departments or the IRB/human research protections program (HRPP) offices at PRIM&R members’ home institutions. Based on the level of student interest, PRIM&R can begin to develop undergraduate conferences, educational webinars, and workshops for those interested in pursuing a career in human subject protections upon graduation. Such an approach is not unlike those used by The Hastings Center, the American Society for Bioethics and Humanities, and the American Journal of Bioethics to raise awareness about the emerging field of bioethics. Where only a few academic programs in bioethics existed 10 years ago, now more than 50 master’s programs in bioethics and a growing list of undergraduate programs can be counted with a quick web search.

Professionals currently working in human subject protections must also share some of the responsibility in educating students about career opportunities in the field. Leaders of IRB and HRPP offices, for instance, can raise awareness and create career opportunities for students by developing internship programs at their respective universities or hospitals, presenting students with the ability to observe or participate in the IRB review process, and working with the career services departments on campus to provide information to students about careers in human subject protections. Universities can also partner with nearby hospitals to provide students with additional experiences in human subject protections that aren’t available on campus.

If we do not believe that this kind of evolution is possible or even necessary, we simply need to look to South Korea for a telling example about what the educational path of human subject protections professionals might look like in the future. Not even a year ago, the Korean FDA (KFDA) along with the Catholic University of Korea established the first post-graduate degree program in IRB/institutional animal case and use committee (IACUC) administration, culminating in the formation of the Department of Institutional Research Ethics and Administration within the university. The first group of students was accepted into the program to begin their coursework this spring semester. Undoubtedly, this program will replicate itself at other universities and hospitals in South Korea and abroad, and when it does, it will be no accident that the US has fallen behind in developing formal career paths for the next generation of IRB and HRPP professionals.

The future of our field depends on having a next generation of professionals equipped with the kind of training and education to allow them to assume leadership positions once their predecessors retire. But, just as importantly, this next generation must be able to build on the great work that has already been done so that our field continues to expand and evolve over time.