HHS Requesting Comments on Institutional Review Boards

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is requesting written comments on a proposed amendment to the categories of research that may be reviewed by an institutional review board (IRB) through an expedited review procedure. Comments must be submitted by December 26, 2007.

IRBs were set up at universities and research centers to protect “human subjects” (living people) from dangerous medical and psychological experiments. Unfortunately, the federal government’s policies joined with university administrators’ instinct to avoid potential liability, caught up practices in a number of other social science and humanities fields—including oral history research in history. As a result, there have been complaints that the degrees of history doctoral students have been withheld, the research of some faculty have been put on hold, and history teachers and students have been threatened with substantial fines, just for talking to people about past experiences.

The American Historical Association (AHA) has been leading the fight for many years regarding the use of IRBs to regulate oral history. For those wishing further information about the issue, I would urge you to visit the article written by AHA’s Robert Townsend.