Institutional Review Boards (IRBs), which oversee the ethics of human subjects research, have long come under criticism for applying to social science inquiry a range of restrictive oversight practices better suited to medical experimentation [Zachary Schrag on a 2017 effort to prune back the rules] Now Omri Ben-Shahar at Regulatory Review reports on an experiment at the University of Chicago:
It is widely recognized that IRBs have exercised “mission creep,” continuously expanding the de facto scope of their oversight. Some might describe this trajectory charitably as the advance of ethical norms, but the cost of IRB expansion is undeniable: more burden on researchers, slowdown of research, fewer studies, and inevitably less progress.
Can this burden be reduced without increasing risks to subjects? The University of Chicago is about to launch a pilot reform to test this question. The reform will address the great majority of social science experiments that are classified as minimum risk—by my own count well over 95 percent of the protocols received by the social science IRBs are treated as either “exempt” or “expedited.”
The reform is propelled by a simple premise: Instead of applying for IRB approval, researchers would self-determine that their studies are low-risk and launch them without IRB review.
This reform is entirely in line with the law.