Institutional Review Boards as Academic Bureaucracies: An Economic and Experiential Analysis


Institutional Review Boards (IRBs) were born from sound motives of protecting participants in biomedical research protocols from undue risk of harm.  Over time, however, the scope of IRBs have expanded to cover all types of research involving human subjects, including social science research.  In recent years, complaints about the operation of IRBs have spread almost as rapidly as their jurisdiction.  IRBs have been widely criticized as wasteful, obstructionist and unresponsive to researchers' needs, and in the end, ineffective at protecting research safety and ethics.  Born from sound motives and administered by earnest and increasingly professional administrators, IRBs today are a source of delay and frustration with little to show for the costs that they impose.  This article thus asks, "Why is it that the smart and conscientious people on IRBs are so prone to making such poor decisions?"

This article argues that the problem is that IRBs are fundamentally bureaucracies, and that this bureaucratic structure explains much of their frequent suboptimal decision-making.  The poor performance of IRBs is thus not a consequence of those individuals who comprise it, but rather a reflection of their bureaucratic nature.  The bureaucratic nature of IRBs appears to do nothing to improve the decisions that they make, while being the source of many of their problems.

Finally, the article briefly proposes possible reforms to ameliorate the IRB bureaucracy, both by narrowing its scope and increasing its efficiency.