Tending the Ground of Our Being: The IRB and IRB Administration in the Biomedical Research Culture

Article excerpt

Abstract

In biomedical research institutions, the protection of human subjects from research risks is the highest of all ethical mandates. The responsibility for the protection of human subjects from research risks is given to Institutional Review Boards (IRBs) or other analogously named committees. IRB's perform stringent ethical reviews of research protocols to insure that the rights, dignity, and freedom of volunteers are protected at all times. Research administrators in biomedical institutions are often assigned to serve as IRB executive administrators and executive managers of IRB programs.

As in other aspects of research administration, there is the temptation to perceive IRB administration as simply another performative activity. However, research administrators who serve as IRB executives are at the very heart of extremely powerful processes that can transform biomedical research organizations from being only associations of knowledge or businesses of industrial performance into communities of wisdom and cultures of human inquiry. In this respect, IRB administration is essential to the responsible development of the culture of research in every discipline and in every industry.

The Research Institution as Culture

Social scientists and philosophers of human nature often have commented over the centuries that maturation in the human animal is a developmental phenomenon. Whatever else can be said of our species, one thing is certain: we are not static. We are dynamic, ever evolving beings. Academics and clinicians articulate in variant ways the stages of human development. However, one thing that experts agree upon is a non-chronological "later age" in human maturity in which the human being embarks upon a need for and an ability to reflect upon the quality of one's life, to engage in a consideration of what one "means" in the continuum of things.

The entry into this level of maturity is preceded by the negotiation of a variety of challenges and life tasks. These tasks include the need for establishing relationships, the need for grasping intellectual knowledge, the need to acquire dynamic skills, and the need to approach a sense of self worth through personal productivity. As experts and simple common sense dictates, passing through the various steps of human maturation is not automatic and not always easy. Many times, it takes the proverbial three steps backwards before one can make a firm step forward.

Let us, for the moment, embrace this understanding of human nature, and accept that human corporate entities seem to develop somewhat along the same lines as human individuals. It should then strike us as meaningful that human amalgams, communities and institutions follow a similar path. This path involves negotiating a variety of skills and tasks on the road toward achieving corporate meaning, integrity, or an understanding of the corporate being's worth and purposefulness.

Research institutions are analogues of the human community. They share common knowledge, semiotics, missions, goals, standards of behavior and metrics of inclusion and exclusion for group membership. From a rarified perspective, research institutions are "cultures" within the broader framework of social culture itself. Engaged in methodological investigations for the advancement of human knowledge, research institutions are woven into the fabric of contemporary society's overall cultural processes and evolution. Given society's quantum leap from the Industrial Revolution to the Information Age, it is no small wonder that research institutions affect the evolving shape and substance of culture itself. No longer tucked away amid dust-laden scrolls or behind the alchemist's s flame, the researcher affects the course of culture's progress and culture's difficulties.

However, questions do emerge about the identity of research as a culture. Given that one can only approach a community's culture from the deeply powerful perspective of metaphor, is there a way the research culture can grasp its ultimate place in social history? …