February 22, 2024


Like an exotic species in a foreign environment, ethics panels designed to monitor biomedical experiments have invaded and overrun the humanities in the US. The that institutional review boards were created in 1974 to prevent humans from being used as lab rats in research. But in 1981, their reach was extended to all research that includes “human subjects” and is designed to contribute to “generalizable knowledge”. As a result, IRBs have spread like wildfire through academia. According to their critics they are creating mountains of paperwork, interfering with academic freedom and putting a damper on original research.

The federal Office for Human Research Protection says that new guidelines will be published soon to clarify the role of the 5,564 IRBs in the US. They appear to be sorely needed. IRBs are only required to monitor research if federal funding is involved, but many universities use them for all research. There is little oversight and no appeal process. Researchers in the humanities and social sciences complain that legitimate concerns in medicine and science over safety and ethical behaviour are largely irrelevant to their work.