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Regulating Creativity: Research and Survival in the IRB Iron Cage
Abstract and Figures
Whether one looks at the United States or abroad, up or down the edu- cational pyramid, or across the disciplines, the singular impact of the IRB on recent U.S. academic history cannot be understated. All this raises two obvious questions: (1) How, in the face of this tightening regulatory vise, has research, particularly social science research, survived at all? And, (2) how has it changed in order to do so? Our scope is restricted largely to the social sciences, though IRB attempts to regulate biomedicine in recent years are central to the social science story. We first sketch the history of the U.S. IRB system and its penetration into local institutions. With an eye to the core concepts that underlie IRB purview (“risk,” “research,” “regulation,” and “compliance”), we outline some key works in organization theory (classic and popular) that illuminate the continuing growth of the IRB nationwide and its intensifying efforts to develop techniques to preempt risk. We then turn to the pragmatic re- sponses these trends have produced in research universities: how local players have begun to incorporate the regulatory demands into their think- ing and practice. We focus on responses that we call “deterrence,” resulting in chilling and distortion of research. We also highlight responses we call “consensual censorship” among researchers as well as IRB representatives who, from their structurally antagonistic positions, develop unspoken work- ing understandings and pursue collective agendas of collusion that result in what IRBs can then call compliance. Such collective constructions of lan- guage and practices to create pathways through the otherwise-impossible review hurdles, we believe, are the key factor that has kept U.S. social sci- ence research alive in the era of IRB ramp-up. Describing the models that result, we reflect on the deep systemic changes in scholarship and teaching that the institution appears to be generating. Our focus on the players— researchers, students, and IRB representatives—thus becomes a window into the rise of an entirely new configuration by which creativity itself be- comes regulated.
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