Bioethics Blogs

NSF Officer Misstates Belmont and Common Rule Standards

In the final contribution to the PS symposium, Lee Demetrius Walker, currently serving as program officer for the Political Science Program at the National Science Foundation, acknowledges the problems of applying a biomedical review system to social science. But he misstates the Belmont and Common Rule standards for assessing research.

[Lee Demetrius Walker, “National Science Foundation, Institutional Review Boards, and Political and Social Science,” PS: Political Science & Politics 49, no. 02 (April 2016): 309–12, doi:10.1017/S1049096516000263.]

Walker notes that

On the one hand, IRB evaluations for experimental social science will be much like IRB evaluations for biomedical and behavioral sciences. In short, IRBs apply the Belmont principles to experimental social-science research with the same rigor as for biomedical and behavioral-science research.

On the other hand, this extension of biomedical-level evaluation to experimental social science creates several problems: (1) the IRB review may be too severe because it is conducted by individuals who generally review more intrusive experimental research; (2) the IRB may assign social-science reviewers who are more comfortable with nonexperimental social-science methodologies; and/or (3) the IRB may extend the experimental protocols to social-science research that uses nonexperimental approaches. These problems may lead to delays that threaten completion of the research or to denial of proposed research because IRB reviewers are unfamiliar or uncomfortable with political science methods.

He calls on researchers to cooperate with their local IRBs, since “NSF program officers can neither waive the applicability of the Common Rule to research activities nor impose less oversight than the institution’s IRB requires.”

Walker unfortunately misstates the requirements of both the Belmont Report and the Common Rule.

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.