A good piece on IRBs from CSPI by Willy Chertman:
Institutional Review Boards (IRBs) are ethics committees, ideally composed of scientific peers and lay community members, that review research before it can be conducted. Their ostensible purpose is to protect research subjects from research harms. But oftentimes, IRBs are costly, slow, and do more harm than good. They censor controversial research, invent harms where none exist, and by designating certain categories of subjects as “vulnerable,” cause a corresponding diminishment in research on those subjects. There is even a plausible legal argument that they violate researchers’ First Amendment rights. Because previous attempts to spur the responsible federal executive agencies into streamlining IRBs have been unsuccessful or only had limited success, a targeted legislative solution that does not depend on bureaucratic implementation is needed.
Chertman has a number of suggestions for reform. At the very least social science should not be under the purview of IRBs at all.
…a more sweeping approach would be removing social science from IRB jurisdiction altogether. Historian Zachary Schrag, who worked intensely to lobby federal agencies on the Common Rule revisions from 2009-2017, proposes this in his book, Ethical Imperialism. As he documents, the Belmont Report, and subsequent regulatory developments, were not designed with social science in mind. Congress could fix this historical oversight by changing the wording of HHS regulations. This would free IRBs to focus on truly high-risk research instead of wasting time on low-risk social science research. Since social science more often touches on political questions, this would also extricate government-mandated oversight boards (IRBs) from the delicate position of regulating politically charged research.
Removing IRBs from social science research is particulary important now because politically sensitive research can be crushed under the pretense that it could “harm” participants.
Read the whole thing.