IRB Regulations and the State: Protecting Public Officials from Researcher Scrutiny?
Posted: 29 Mar 2010
Federal policy protecting human subjects exempts research involving 'elected or appointed public officials or candidates for public office' from complying with research regulations. However, anecdotal evidence suggests that what 'exempt' means in practice as implemented by university institutional review boards (IRBs) varies from one campus to another. In particular, public administrators, who are neither elected nor appointed, may be 'protected' from the critical scrutiny of scholars as, at least on some campuses, IRBs exclude them from the federal policy exemption. We begin this paper by analyzing the lack of discussion of this exemption in the originating documents central to IRB policy. We then turn to the current practices of several university IRBs to explore the following questions: (a) Do campus IRB policy statements and practices make clear to scholars doing research on public administrators that this exemption is available to them? (b) How is ﾓexemptionﾔ understood in IRB practice? As IRBs are federally mandated and regulated entities, this analysis bears centrally on the meaning of academic freedom in a democracy: scholars must ask permission of the state to study the state.
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