Saturday, August 8, 2009

Bureaucracy in research

Good editorial on human subject regulatory boards for medical research.

I don't have experience with human subjects boards in medical research obviously, but they are certainly ridiculous in economics. Somehow at my undergraduate university, a small private research institution with little bureaucracy (the registrars and deans knew me by name...), I never once had to deal with approval for economic experiments. Presumably there was standing approval for experiments of a certain type. Makes perfect sense. Economic experiments are basically paying people to play silly computer games. There's no risk whatsoever.

Yet at Berkeley, anything at all involving human subjects has to go through a grueling paperwork-laden bureaucratic approval process that takes months. And once you've collected all your data and have no more contact with subjects, you have to continue submitting paperwork just to analyze it. All for things as simple as fake auctions and maybe a few questions about age and educational background. I don't know how much of that is because Berkeley is an enormous public university or because it's politically particularly "liberal" in the "paternalistic" sense of the word, but I don't see why it has to be such a huge pain in the neck to do a simple experiment here and not other places.

It absolutely hinders research: you can get a heck of a lot more done when you can run an experiment three days after coming up with the idea, and then run slight modifications of it over the next couple weeks, following and refining the results which almost never exactly align with pre-formed hypotheses that were the basis of the experiment design, without redoing all your approval paperwork.

The U.S. is already having to make up for a comparative disadvantage in scientific research due to pro-life and other religious objections to various types of research. Unless the government gets out of the way of scientists doing their jobs, bureaucracy is going to be a much bigger problem.