Institutional Review Boards: Is this the Least Worst We Can Do?

34 Pages Posted: 7 Nov 2006

See all articles by David A. Hyman

David A. Hyman

Georgetown University Law Center


Institutional Review Boards ("IRBs") are polarizing institutions. IRB supporters view them as the best thing since sliced bread. Detractors believe IRBs impose costs and have no benefits. Supporters point to the good faith and hard work of those who volunteer to serve on an IRB. Detractors suggest that IRBS emphasize bureaucratic busy-work. Supporters ask for more money and more staff so they can do an even more thorough job reviewing research protocols. Detractors point out that the IRB framework of research oversight would never be approved by an IRB. Supporters counter that notorious examples of abuse (e.g., Tuskegee and Nuremberg) show that IRBs are necessary. Detractors respond with anecdotes of IRB stupidity and incompetence. Supporters argue that conducting research is a privilege, not a right. Detractors complain about censorship, restrictions on academic freedom, and the chilling of constitutionally protected free speech. Both sides then return to their respective camps, secure in the knowledge that they are right and those on the other side are self-righteous zealots.

The controversy over IRBs arises from differing preferences, methodological commitments, and risk tolerances. Both sides believe fundamental principles (academic freedom/censorship v. the protection of vulnerable human subjects) are at stake, so the dispute is not readily subject to compromise. Even King Solomon would find it difficult to solve the controversy in a way that makes everyone happy - and the original Solomonic strategy (cutting the director of each IRB in half) seems unlikely to do the job. This article offers some perspective on the dispute, and some modest strategies for improving on the status quo.

Suggested Citation

Hyman, David A., Institutional Review Boards: Is this the Least Worst We Can Do?. Northwestern Law Review, Vol. 101, 2007, U Illinois Law & Economics Research Paper No. LE06-024, Available at SSRN:

David A. Hyman (Contact Author)

Georgetown University Law Center ( email )

600 New Jersey Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20001
United States

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