The lack of institutional ethics review boards has prevented some Hillsdale College faculty and students from publishing their research.
Based on recommendations from the biology department, the college is looking into establishing such review boards, said Chris VanOrman, dean of natural sciences and professor of chemistry.
The Journal of Mammalogy refused to publish Associate Professor of Biology Jeffery VanZant’s research, because Hillsdale does not have an Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee, or IACUC. The lack of an Institutional Review Board, or IRB, has prevented publication of a student research project involving vaccination surveys, Wyatt McDonnell ’15 said. Not having an IACUC at Hillsdale limited Professor of Biology Bob Miller’s research on Fetal Alcohol Syndrome to chick embryos instead of mammalian embryos, Miller said.
IACUCs provide oversight in ethical research involving vertebrates and have detailed guidelines for sample collection, animal care, and minimizing the pain or discomfort of the research animals. These committees, which must have at least five members, include an institution administrator, a senior faculty member with experience in vertebrate research and publication, a veterinarian, a scientist in a field other than biology, a community member not employed by the college, and a theologian or philosopher. The committee reviews research proposals to ensure best ethical practices.
IRBs deal with human research and help ensure personally identifiable or medical information is properly collected, analyzed, and stored for behavioral or biomedical research.
“We have faculty members who produce art, people who write and publish academic papers and books, yet some faculty members, because we have no IACUC, can’t do what they are trained to do,” Miller said.
Since chicks are unable to completely function as independent organisms until several days after hatching, their lack of viability renders IACUC regulations less strict. This allows for the publication of Miller’s work.
“I have to go through and point out the guidelines to prove I’m not committing an ethics violation,” Miller said.
Since the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA, protects the privacy of medical information, McDonnell said proper steps to ensure confidentiality of information is important from a legal standpoint as well as an ethical standpoint.
“In my mind, having a rushed, stamped review board applies also to childhood education research, sociology, psychology, economics — there are a lot of areas to which this applies,” he said. “It’s in Hillsdale’s best interests to have these review boards not only from a standpoint of, ‘We take this seriously.’ It also provides a better research environment for faculty members recruited in the coming years, and it provides legal protection to the college, as well.”
Although these committees help prevent ethics violations and HIPAA violations, Miller and McDonnell said, founding an IRB or IACUC would not incur additional federal or state oversight unless researchers applied for and received federally funded grant money from the National Science Foundation or the National Institute of Health.
After a year of working with Vanderbilt University’s IACUC and IRB, McDonnell and Matthew Drogowski ’15, a second-year medical student, wrote a letter in January 2016 to Hillsdale College’s administration asking the college to consider founding an IRB and IACUC.
VanOrman said he has discussed the prospect with department chairmen and is researching the process of starting these review boards at Hillsdale.
“If we decide to move forward with these committees, I will also need to get approval from administration,” VanOrman said in an email. “I’m just not that far into the process yet. I’m hoping to get something figured out by the end of this coming summer.”
The review board members volunteer their time to serve. Some organizations accredit such committees and provide professional development for board members. To join these nonmandatory organizations, however, the college would incur a small cost.
Miller said he researched the IACUC establishment requirements in the past and drafted the paperwork necessary to establish a Hillsdale committee five or six years ago, but no further action was taken.
Additionally, Miller said approval from a Hillsdale IRB or IACUC would allow for publication of research projects that would otherwise be declined by journals because of the lack of review by an ethics committee. He also said this would help the college to recruit new faculty members, who are coming from institutions where IACUCs and IRBs are a given.
McDonnell said establishment of these review boards at Hillsdale would allow for publication and recognition of Hillsdale’s research and would help the college recruit young researchers.
“By not having these boards, we’re stopping research from being published in respectable places and putting us on the map for things we’ve been good at for over a century,” he said.