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101 Nw. U. L. Rev. 861 (2007)
Institutional Review Boards as Academic Bureaucracies: An Economic and Experiential Analysis

handle is hein.journals/illlr101 and id is 869 raw text is: Copyright 2007 by Northwestern University School of Law            Printed in U.S.A.
Northwestern University Law  Review                                 Vol. 101, No. 2
Todd]. Zywicki*
Institutional Review Boards (IRBs) have become a ubiquitous presence
on the landscape of America's higher education system. IRBs initially
arose in response to major breaches of research ethics in biomedical re-
search, such as the infamous Tuskegee experiments that led to major physi-
cal harm to research subjects. To prevent the reoccurrence of similar
debacles, regulators came to require preapproval by an independent review
panel of any research that posed a risk of substantial harm to research sub-
jects. And thus the IRB was born. Over time the jurisdiction of IRBs has
expanded beyond this traditional focus on biomedical research to cover
myriad fields of research, including social science research that involves
human subjects.
Since that time, complaints about the operation of IRBs have spread
almost as rapidly as their jurisdiction. IRBs have been widely criticized as
wasteful, obstructionist, and unresponsive to researchers' needs, and in the
end, ineffective at protecting research safety and ethics. Born from sound
motives and administered by earnest and increasingly professional adminis-
trators, IRBs today are a source of delay and frustration with little to show
for the costs that they impose. One is thus led to ask, Why is it that the
smart and conscientious people on IRBs are so prone to making such poor
decisions? As a recovering government bureaucrat myself,' I hope I can
provide some insight into governmental and other bureaucracies, such as
academic bureaucracies. And as an economist, when obviously competent
people overproduce suboptimal outcomes, the first places to look are the in-
centives and institutions that govern the decision-making by these institu-
Professor of Law, George Mason University School of Law; Research Fellow, James Buchanan
Center for the Study of Political Economy. The author would like to thank David Hyman and partici-
pants at the Northwestern Law Review Symposium for which this paper was prepared for comments and
the Law & Economics Center at George Mason University School of Law for financial support for this
project. I would also like to thank the IRB directors at several institutions for having the time and pa-
tience to speak with me to explain their IRB processes.
I From 2003 to 2004 1 served as the Director of the Office of Policy Planning at the United States
Federal Trade Commission.

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