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Suppose I was back at the beginning of my undergraduate career, and I decided that while I was willing to do human-subjects research, my real career goal was to sit on an IRB and guide lost souls who can't be trusted to figure out right from wrong.

Is there a typical or expected career path for IRB members? More specifically,

  • Would I be expected to first "make a name for myself" as a researcher in a field involving human subjects and then get additional ethics training (e.g. Advanced Introduction to Intermediate Best Practices in IRB Ethics for Geneticists)?
  • Would I be expected to concentrate my efforts on gaining a broad and deep education in ethics (majoring in philosophy, etc.), and then top that off with subject matter-specific training (e.g. Introduction to Genetics for Ethicists)?
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    Not a full answer, but at many Universities most members of an IRB are just temporary part-time members - being on the IRB is just a form of service for a faculty member (usually a tenured one). However, at larger institutions you can have everything from medical doctors, lawyers, statisticians, and psychologists solely employed to sit on the board, deans, and a veritable platoon of administrative staff that work as part of the board (though not all are explicitly on the board making accept/reject/revise decisions), and more. I don't think anyone majors in IRB, though :) – BrianH Mar 16 at 2:04
  • @BrianH if the answer is that there's no answer - that every IRB makes up their own qualifications and procedures - some poaching researchers off of projects, others contracting with renowned philosophers, others setting up their own professional degree programs (e.g. Master of Research Ethics) to grow their own, etc., that's an answer. – Robert Columbia Mar 16 at 2:07
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    I'm actually trying to find a list of who is currently sitting on one of my own institution's many review boards to check to ensure this is true - and it turns out its a surprisingly hard piece of information to find. They don't have a Careers page, either. Until your question I was not aware of how rather opaque the precise details can be, which I suppose is at least partially intentional. – BrianH Mar 16 at 2:11
  • You get asked to serve - one of 2 « p’s » promotion (of sorts) or punishment (keep you away from something else...) – Solar Mike Mar 16 at 2:43
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There are administration jobs involved in the ethics processes. My university employs several "Ethics Officers" which facilitate the various ethics reviews. Most of them do not have PhDs. While these employees may not directly decide ethical issues, they do provide advice to researchers before the application is made which ensures the application is successful. Knowledge of local laws is at least as important as knowledge of ethics; researchers usually need more help with the legal aspects than the ethical aspects of their ethics application.

If this sort of job appeals to you, then yes it exists, no you do not need to be a researcher to hold it, and I doubt you need to study philosophy.

  • What are the typical qualifications expected for an "Ethics Officer"? You mentioned that studying philosophy is probably not necessary. What is necessary or expected? Does one have to pass certain qualification exams in ethics? Is there a formal apprenticeship or training program? – Robert Columbia Apr 5 at 16:38
  • @RobertColumbia find one and ask them. – Anonymous Physicist Apr 6 at 0:57
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The notion of IRB is actually international and covers many different situations. I don't know all of the variations that are used, especially by large companies that conduct medical and pharmaceutical research. But I doubt that there are very many people in the world who are specifically hired as IRB (or equivalent) members. Hence, I doubt that there is really a career path for this.

However, if you are interested in doing it, I think there are two ways that you can work towards being selected for it. The first is to become a prominent scientist in your field of interest, perhaps psychology. The other is to become a prominent philosopher of ethics. Then your skills and opinions would be seen as valuable to those making up an IRB.

That isn't to say that you can't be paid as an IRB member. Some people might be hired as (part-time) consultants to serve on an IRB or to give advice in some situations. Faculty members who serve (part-time) on an IRB, can get released from other duties and hence paid indirectly. Or you might even be a full-time member in a large institution, but likely for a limited period, returning afterwards to normal research.

The requirements in the US, require that a team consist of at least five members, with at least one scientist and at least one non-scientist. A full time career would mean that you aren't really a scientist anymore, so that you wouldn't qualify for the scientist slot if it were full time over a long period.

But if you want to do this, learn a lot about science (and practice it) and learn a lot about ethics (and practice that too).


I'll also note that one of the problems with being a full time IRB member in a for-profit organization that needs to monetize its research is that that there can be a lot of pressure to allow things that should not be done. Standing in the way of what some vice-president really, really, wants to do doesn't make for a secure future.

But one of the most valuable things an IRB can do is to look at a problematic proposal, decide what is fundamental in the research goals, and then suggest an ethical way to meet those goals. That sort of thing takes a lot of experience and sound judgement.

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The IRB is only one portion of of regulatory oversight. I think the career you are looking for is a regulatory officer. This webpage lists a number of programs that offer an MS is Regulatory Science. The best place to get information might be the Regulatory Affairs Professionals Society (RAPS).

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Depending on the size of the institution or the amount of research it does, there are a number of professional roles. A graduate degree in bioethics, medical ethics or similar would be one way to go in terms of training.

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