Diversity, Equity and Inclusion
Issues of diversity, equity, inclusion, and social justice have particular implications with regard to human subjects research. IRBs concerned with diversity, equity, inclusion, and social justice must address these matters as they impact researchers, potential researchers, and potential research participants (called “human subjects” in the federal IRB literature).
Researchers: IRBs must address all research projects strictly with regard to any ethical or legal concerns they raise without treating researchers differently or unfairly based on social groups to which they may belong (by gender, race, class, sexuality, religion, ability, nationality or any other social category for which people may be devalued). The Colorado College IRB, chaired by a sociologist who herself belongs to several socially devalued groups and who has special training in social inequality, is committed to treating all researchers fairly and engaging in all projects run by the IRB in good faith. This includes projects in which a researcher belonging to a socially devalued group wishes to study their own social group; such projects receive the same scrutiny as all other projects.
In cases where a researcher from a socially devalued group proposes a project that raises issues of legal or ethical concern, the CC IRB is committed to working through the concerns with the researcher and addressing them jointly so that the research project may go forward on a timely basis with the ethical or legal concerns addressed. Here, as elsewhere, the IRB treats researchers with equal respect, dignity, and support regardless of who they are (and, where necessary, takes care to treat researchers from devalued groups in ways that assure them of their value as researchers).
Finally, faculty members without expertise in issues of inequality occasionally encourage students studying social inequality to discuss their projects with the IRB chair (wearing her sociologist hat). When this occurs, the IRB is careful to separate project discussions more generally from IRB discussions in particular so as to assure that students are clear about which aspects of such a conversation are IRB-relevant and which simply entail support from a social inequality sociologist who herself has carried out research on socially devalued groups.
Potential researchers: The IRB chair routinely visits classes at the invitation of professors to teach about the IRB, its history and its laws; such visits sometimes also include training in interviewing or other social science research methods as requested by the professor whose class it is. These class visits regularly include coverage of the philosophical (specifically Kantian) dilemma of treating people both as ends-in-themselves and as means to the researcher’s end of obtaining research information. When appropriate, this discussion also includes coverage of the challenges of studying members of socially devalued groups as well as tips for approaching such research with respect and with the capacity to build rapport with participants. The IRB chair has similar conversations with students who arrange meetings to discuss project ideas one-on-one.
Potential research participants: The ethical system that undergirds IRBs includes concerns that potential research participants should neither be excluded based on irrelevant characteristics (that may include socially devalued identities) nor coerced to participate (a risk with economically poor people and members of socially devalued or politically oppressed groups). The IRB application addresses the second of these concerns directly, while the IRB chair works with researchers whose projects raise the possibility that the first concern might be relevant in order to maximize the opportunity of people to participate in research if they wish. Because such projects have been relatively rare at Colorado College (and are mostly carried out by faculty or staff) the IRB has elected thus far to treat this issue on a case-by-case basis but may in the future consider whether a more formal approach would be appropriate.
IRBs also take notice of whether a given research project runs the risk of burdening members of a devalued group while a privileged group reaps the benefits of the research findings. This is primarily a problem when researchers are from privileged groups and research participants are from devalued groups. Our application includes a question that addresses this type of situation and when such situations arise the IRB chair works directly with the researcher(s) to minimize burdens on participants as well as (where possible) increasing benefits to the participants in appropriate ways.
In recent years, the IRB has taken a stance of caution with regard to students carrying out research involving prisoners. Such research is permissible but is treated as a special case (parallel to the way the IRB laws require extra care when children are participants). Specifically, students studying prisoners must work with a professor who oversees the project as Principal Investigator. Such students are required to gain permission from the relevant prison(s) and undergo confidentiality or other legal agreements as requested by the prison(s). Since children are not legally able to sign contracts in Colorado, only students who are 18 or older receive IRB approval for projects involving prisoners. The CC IRB believes that this stance allows the CC community to carry out important research about prisoner experiences while assuring that prisoners are treated carefully and respectfully.