What’s It Like To Be an IRB Member?

It’s “interesting,” “challenging,” “an important service to the community of scholars,” and “a serious time commitment.” Those are some of the comments made by current members of Tufts’ three IRBs (Institutional Review Boards): two IRB panels for health sciences and one IRB panel for social, behavioral and educational research. A federal mandate requires that all research studies that involve human subjects are reviewed and approved by an Institutional Review Board. Each IRB panel is made up of approximately 20 Tufts faculty members and staff, both scientists and non-scientists, and at least one community representative. The IRB panels convene about once each month to review research protocols and informed consent forms and to provide feedback to principal investigators requesting IRB approval.

The five IRB members interviewed for this article all feel strongly about the importance of the work they are doing. One community representative said, “I focus a lot on the informed consent forms to make sure they are understandable to the lay person because at the end of the day, that’s what will determine whether we have been effective.” That same member said that he enjoys grappling with the science, and he appreciates the explanations provided by the scientists around the table. He said, “The IRB is a place where lay people have a significant role, and people should not be intimidated by the science. It’s fascinating. I definitely would encourage people to make a commitment. You’ll gain, and you are making a contribution to the general well-being of our society.”

Several faculty IRB members said that they believed human subject research designs at Tufts were better because of suggestions IRB members had made. One member said, “We make a conscious effort not to overreach and not to try to tell people how to design their studies because I think that’s the researchers’ domain. But I think there are times where studies have improved or been streamlined because of the kinds of issues we have raised.”

When asked why they decided to volunteer their services, a community representative said he thought it would be a good way to give back to his community. Another said, “It is something that has always been important to me, but now I have even more awareness and appreciation of health and the role of the IRB in the development of the knowledge that we need to promote and have a healthier society.” A faculty IRB member said, “The IRB is something that has to happen for all the great work at Tufts to go on. It’s a public resource to which I felt that I should contribute since I conduct a fair amount of human subject research.” Another said he “looked forward to the opportunity of working with the IRB” because two colleagues who were IRB members had wonderful insight into the development of clinical protocols, and they said the insight was primarily because of their participation in the IRB.

When asked about pros and cons of being an IRB member, members unequivocally stated that the “pros” outweighed the “cons.” Pros included an increased understanding of research study designs and the relative strength of one design over the other. One member said, “My own personal research has improved through my involvement in the IRB by giving me a much better understanding of how the human subject research process works and, more importantly, how it works from a research subject’s standpoint.” Another said: “I think it has made both the design of human subjects research and the conduct much easier just with my familiarity.” Other IRB members mentioned that membership had made them more aware of the different kinds of methodologies that colleagues in other departments use, as well as cutting edge issues and current controversies in medical diagnostics and treatments.

IRB membership has also led to new research connections at Tufts. One member said, “I’ve learned of a lot of people’s research, and I’m better able to connect individual researchers.” Another member said that he is now collaborating with a researcher whose work he learned about by reading her IRB protocol.

A community representative enjoys the “window of insight into the medical profession” that IRB meetings provide him. And a scientist member said, “This marks my tenth year of being involved and I’ve loved the professional interactions in the meetings and the ability to meet people and work with people from across the entire spectrum of the institution.”

The primary “con” was the time commitment of 40-60 hours per year, depending on the number of research protocols that need to be reviewed and the complexity of the protocols. Each IRB member is asked to attend 10-12 meetings per year, about one each month. Each meeting is two to three hours long and preparation time can be one to two hours for each meeting.

A community representative mentioned something that isn’t really a “con” but is something to be aware of. He said, “There are really important issues being considered, and even though as a community rep my focus is on the informed consent, I can’t help but think about the risk, and I feel bad for the people who are ill, the people who are affected.”

A long time IRB member sums it up with, “My personal feelings are that the negatives are easily counter-balanced by the positives that you gain from a greater appreciation of research. I still enjoy it after all these years.”

If you are interested in learning more about IRB membership, please contact one of the IRB offices below. While the IRB directors request an initial commitment of one year, they welcome longer memberships. The expertise gained over multiple years is invaluable.

Health Sciences IRB, Boston/Grafton Campuses

Website: http://viceprovost.tufts.edu/HSCIRB.
For more information, please call the IRB office main at (617) 636-7512.
If you are interested in exploring the possibility of becoming an IRB member, please send an e-mail describing your background and interest in the IRB to the IRB office at: irboffice@tuftsmedicalcenter.org.

Social, Behavioral & Educational Research IRB, Medford/Somerville Campus

Website: http://www.tufts.edu/central/research/IRB.
For more information, please call the main office at (617) 627-3417 or email sber@tufts.edu.
If you are interested in exploring the possibility of becoming an IRB member, please send an e-mail describing your background and interest in the IRB to the IRB office at: sber@tufts.edu.