Bioethics Blogs

Montana Political Scientist: IRB Process Is "Cumbersome, Inadequate" for Political Research

The Montana Commissioner of Political Practices (COPP), Jonathan Motl, has determined “that there are sufficient facts to show that Stanford, Dartmouth and/or its researchers violated Montana campaign practice laws requiring registration, reporting and disclosure of independent expenditures” in October 2014, when they mailed pre-election postcards to 102,780 registered voters. The postcards were part of an effort to see if certain claims about candidates’ place on an ideological spectrum would affect voting patterns.

As part of the investigation, Motl engaged Carroll College political science professor Jeremy Johnson to determine whether the Stanford and Dartmouth researchers had violated IRB requirements. Johnson finds that they did, but also that the Dartmouth IRBs could have approved the studies without addressing the most serious ethical issues they raised. “The fundamental problem with the IRB process,” he writes, “is the narrow focus on protecting the individual subject. Concerns about human subjects in the aggregate often do not even occur to researchers, faculty, and staff involved in the IRB.”

[McCulloch v. Stanford and Dartmouth, Commissioner of Political Practices of the State of Montana, No. COPP 2014-CFP–046, Decision Findind Sufficient Facts to Demonstrate a Violation of Montana’s Campaign Practice Laws, 11 May 2015. h/t Chris Lawrence.]

Motl’s own findings misstates IRB regulations, claiming that “There is a process by which Universities and Colleges are supposed to review or vet Institutional studies that have an impact on human beings. This process, called the Institutional Review Board (lRB) process …” In fact, IRB jurisdiction is triggered not by “impact,” but rather the obtaining of data through “intervention or interaction with the individual” or the collection of “identifiable private information,” neither of which was clearly the case here.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.