Andrew Perrin nails it:
Twice a year, like clockwork, the ethics cops at the IRB [institutional review board, the group on campus that has to approve research involving human subjects] take a break from deciding whether or not radioactive isotopes can be administered to prison populations to cure restless-leg syndrome to dream up some fancy new way in which participating in an automated telephone poll might cause harm.
The list of exemptions to IRB review is too short and, more importantly, contains no guiding principle as to what makes exempt. . . . [and] Even exemptions require approval by the IRB.
He also voices a thought I’ve had many times, which is that there are all sorts of things you or I or anyone else can do on the street (for example, go up to people and ask them personal questions, drop objects and see if people pick them up, stage fights with our friends to see the reactions of bystanders, etc etc etc) but for which we have to go through an IRB in our roles as researchers, teachers, or students.
Recently a high school student contacted me about a research project he has, involving online surveys. He had some interesting ideas and it looked like a great project. But it might never get done. Why? His high school has no IRB. But he can’t do it through the Columbia IRB because he’s not a Columbia student (and it’s his project, not mine, so it doesn’t help that I work here.)
Bottom line: Everybody’s afraid of getting sued. That’s the problem with living in a country that’s run by lawyers.
Two other things:
1. At the university, endless hours are wasted on getting permissions to do innocuous surveys. Meanwhile, what about dangerous medical experiments, the kind of study where a drug company crams some illegal aliens into a bunch of Miami hotel rooms? Don’t worry, those guys use commercial IRB’s that approve everything.
2. I do have problems with the ethics of surveys that don’t pay their participants. But that has nothing to do with the questions that are being asked. Instead, the IRB has all this “minimal risk” B.S.
Of course this is not the world’s most important problem, but it really is pretty bogus.