In 2012, Dyck and Allen suggested that Institutional Review Boards (IRB), instead of approving and enforcing onerous rules, should “provide guidance and feedback on submitted projects.” They argue that, while the role of IRBs is undisputed, researchers should ultimately be responsible for ethical conduct in research. Dyck and Allen’s proposal arises out of a frustration with the IRB process as applied to low-risk research unrelated to past instances of unethical treatment of people in medical research. While their suggestion has understandable merits, I consider their proposal harmful in that it greatly weakens the ability of IRBs to prevent abuse and could potentially put IRBs on the path to ineffective irrelevance.
Researchers’ criticisms of IRBs have been well documented, especially for research outside of medicine. It is understandable that researchers want more freedom in conducting minimal-risk research, especially for purely public, anonymous, and observational research. Public policy is starting to incorporate this feedback: In 2010, the Canadian National Research Council has incorporated this feedback into their TCPS2 statement on ethical research. However, Dyck and Allen’s criticism of IRB’s disrespect for researchers exemplifies a much more systemic problem with the people who make up IRBS, one that requires much more effort to remedy.
Dyck and Allen’s suggest that the systemic problem could be solved by shifting responsibility for ethical conduct to researchers. A clear consequence of this change is to shift the ethical conversation from a largely deontological perspective to a relativist perspective. The relativist ethical perspective eschews the notion of universal ethics and instead focuses on maintaining good relationships with other people. Unintended consequences of the shift include systemic corruption, blindness to negative consequences to people outside of the researcher’s social network, and harm to future generations. For example, consider the case in which government whistleblowers have no ability to effect change after revealing corruption. Like IRBs in a relativist role, government employees would be greatly disincentivized from preventing abuse without the ability to change behaviour.
On the other hand, if Dyck and Allen’s suggestion is adopted, members of IRBs could become exasperated that they cannot stop unethical behaviour, just as researchers are currently frustrated that IRBs sometimes block or delay what they consider minimal-risk research. The IRB members would then become disincentivized from providing further feedback for lack of effectiveness and disband IRBs altogether. The role of IRBs, wether to provide guidance and feedback and/or to prevent harm, then becomes moot in the face of dissolution.
In any case, Dyck and Allen suggest that their proposal mirrors the ethical model in medicine in that doctors are trusted to upload a code of ethics and intervention is necessary only when misbehaviour is suspect. Unfortunately, this view does not address the fact that doctors generally carry out well-understood procedures while researchers explore as-yet not understood phenomena that sometimes require creative, untried methods. IRBs in advisory roles would be ineffective in reviewing the ethics of these novel methods.
Clearly, the potential consequences of shifting the role of IRBs to advisory boards are severe enough that it would be very unwise to adopt Dyck and Allen’s suggestion unilaterally. IRBs, as Dyck and Allen have indicated, have the clear and well-understood purpose of preventing ethical abuse in research. Instead of effectively abolishing IRBs, I believe that the role of IRBs can and should change to incorporate critical feedback from the research community, as in the case of IRBs in Canada.
Studying rats as model subjects, scientists found that adolescents were at an increased risk of suffering negative health effects from sugar-sweetened beverage consumption.
Adolescent rats that freely consumed large quantities of liquid solutions containing sugar or high-fructose corn syrup…
Growing up in a generally secular school environment, with little mention of religion or God, and a strong emphasis on science and mathematics, it was no surprise that I adopted the objectivist epistemology early in life. When I went to the University of Washington, however, I joined an intellectually diverse group of students as part of the University Honours Program. In the program, I experienced the social constructionist viewpoint through both courses and an immersive experience in Berlin. In the years after graduation, I relied heavily on social constructionism to make sense of a world that, to my mind, was chaotic, disordered, and unpredictable, before eventually reintegrating objectivism for triangulation.
Before university, I had been predominantly taught the objectivist view that there is a single Truth to the world and that there was a single right way to do things. The social constructionist approach, on the other hand, taught me that people create and reaffirm meaning, and that my role in society is not only constructed, but also highly malleable. My involvement with Gay Rights groups on campus exemplified social constructionism and taught me how to challenge social hegemony, as well as challenge my own preconceptions about the world.
Unfortunately, after earning my Bachelor’s degree, reality became unpredictable. Finding work I enjoyed seemed like an insurmountable obstacle. The behaviours I learned as part of the Gay Rights movement positioned every relationship as hegemonic or adversarial, social life became wholly unstructured, and my support network disappeared almost overnight. During this time of turmoil, I read Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning and began to search for meaning in my own life. I continued on to read the works of Andrew Zolli, Carol Dweck, and David Brooks. From these researchers, I learned about resilience thinking, the growth mindset, and how culture and social interaction influence our sense of self and how we relate to one another. These and many other thought curators ignited a period of enlightenment in my life and taught me how to learn to think creatively, strategically, and wisely.
To better learn from past mistakes, I decided to engage, in my personal life,strategies I learned from volunteering with the startup community in Seattle. The most instrumental strategy was the fast pivot, described in Lean Startup, a book and strategy by Eric Ries. The strategy required me to develop appropriate metrics to continually assessthe effectiveness of my activities and behaviours towards meeting an end goal, an approach very similar to objectivism and post-positivism. However, rather than having the notion that there is a right solution, there is instead the concept of a most appropriatesolution that meets the requirements, as indicated by the metrics. In addition, I also engaged in the 4 Actions Framework, from the Blue Ocean Strategy, described by W. Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne in a book of the same name, as a way to systematicallydefine appropriate metrics and targets.
While the research that led to the strategies I previously described engaged in social constructionism, much of the research also engaged in objectivism as well. As Danel Kahneman and other psychologists have discovered, the human mind is vulnerable to a number of cognitive fallacies, including groupthink, overestimation of improbable events, and personal bias. Objectivism offers a way to counter these fallacies, and hence the reason for my heavy emphasis on developing appropriate metrics. I use the metrics to engage in the Russian proverb to “Trust, but verify”, both to validate my own work and to provide constructive feedback for others, without relying solely on opinion or majority beliefs.
These developments have led to the current triangulation strategy in which I now engage. I use social constructionism to study and verbalize tacit knowledge and wisdom, and objectivism to validate the findings and hedge against cognitive fallacies. The strategy has proven effective thus far and I humbly thank the many wonderful people in my life, many of whom I have only met through their writing, who have taught me how to engage with the world. I could not have done it without their wisdom and generosity.
Design is most powerful when it tells a story about something that matters, in a voice that matters.