Nancy Barrand: As we move to virtual social experimentation, how do experimentational ethics change? Are traditional IRBs (Institutional Review Boards) sufficient or even relevant?
Christakis: My own opinion about this topic is complex. I have served on IRBs twice in my career, including a stint as the Vice Chair of the IRB at the University of Chicago years ago. In general, I think that IRBs waste a lot of time reviewing quite innocuous social science research. It's been my experience that it is often easier to get approval for a randomized, control trial of a novel anti-cancer drug (wherein the risks to patients are morbidity or death) than for a social science survey project (where the risks are a loss of confidentiality, at worst).
I think this is the case for a number of reasons, but my main concern is that we may have, in some instances, created an overly bureaucratized system that has all sorts of secondary costs. For example, I have heard many stories of IRBs that offer advice on the scientific design of studies. Please note that I quite understand the rationale for this, insofar as unscientific research is inherently unethical, because it imposes risk without benefit. But what often happens is that, when there are differences of opinion about the scientific design of a study, the IRB has absolute power, so investigators have no choice but to do things the IRB's way.
I also think that the amount of money and personnel time we spend on the review of studies may be wasteful; it's worth considering whether we could get more value, as a society, if those resources were devoted to inventing new ways to help people. I am not, of course, saying we should dispense with IRB review! But I do think we need to look at ways to improve the system.
Let me give you an example: Say you want to do a study involving paying small amounts of money to Amazon Mechanical Turk workers who are entirely anonymous to complete some tasks online (such as answering questions or interacting with others); this is the sort of novel work that is being done by many around the country (for example, see The Online Laboratory: Conducting Experiments in Real Labor Market, Conducting Behavioral Research on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk and Evaluating Online Labor Markets for Experimental Research: Amazon.com's Mechanical Turk). IRBs often spend a lot of time reviewing such projects, but they clearly present no material risk at all.
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