Report calls for limit on humanities project oversight

A recently released report intensifies the call for universities to relax oversight of human research in order to promote academic freedom.

The report, released by the American Association of University Professors, urges research universities to limit their review of projects in the humanities and social sciences, including surveys and interviews, that pose a negligible risk to participants. Members of the committee that prepared the report said institutional review boards place unnecessary limits on human research and consequently impede academic freedom. But Yale administrators said the system already in place at the University provides valuable oversight and advice, and does not need major changes.

Institutional review boards — which are charged with protecting research participants — are required at any university receiving federal funding for human research, but are administered locally. Philip Rubin, report co-author and head of the Haskin Laboratories, a New Haven-based group that studies the science of speech, said IRBs are becoming overtaxed with added responsibilities.

“We have a system that is overstressed and under-resourced,” he said. “There is an increasingly greater workload.”

But the large number of proposed projects — just one of Yale’s four review boards alone receives about 350 applications a year — is only one aspect of the problem. Rubin, who is also a research affiliate with Yale’s Psychology department, said “mission creep” is to blame.

“Non-biomedical research is falling under regulations that in the main were crafted to address biomedical issues,” he said.

Review boards should focus on higher-risk research, said Jonathan Knight, the AAUP coordinator for academic freedom and a co-author of the report. Otherwise, committees used to supervising potentially dangerous research make unreasonable requirements, psychology professor John Bargh said. In his 10 years on New York University’s IRB before coming to Yale, he said, there were “strange” and “fussy” requirements.

But Susan Bouregy, director of the Human Subjects Committee at Yale, said the way in which the University structures its review process negates the report’s concerns about misplaced focus. Yale has four review boards, each focusing on a different area. The Human Subjects Committee only works with humanities and social sciences, avoiding some of the problems described in the report, Bouregy said.

The Yale system includes a quick turnaround time as well, she said. The committee meets monthly, but projects that fall under exemptions to the Yale committee’s normal review process — such as surveys, interviews and public observations — and other “minimal risk” plans can be reviewed faster. Brett Dignam, law professor and a member of the committee, said approval can be granted by e-mail, contributing to a streamlined review process. Aside from avoiding research holdups with long delays, Bouregy said, the Human Subjects Committee issues fewer requirements than some review boards, such as not forcing researchers to obtain signed waiver forms as long as they still inform participants of the risks involved.

Unlike biomedical research, humanities and social sciences research poses no risk to participants, Knight said. He said review boards serve an important purpose, but not when their oversight is extended to research methods commonly used in the humanities and social sciences, such as oral histories, interviews and surveys.

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