Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The Overregulation of Science

The Instapundit recently linked to a great blog detailing how overregulation has suffocated and stifled some areas of science.  Research ethics boards put up painful hurdles to investigation, sometimes leading to thousands of lost lives due to delayed clinical trials. These boards may be called ethics committees (in Australia, the United Kingdom, and Canada) or institutional review boards/IRBs (in the United States). They delay projects and force scientists through laborious and unnecessary hoops. 

Now, I'm not sure science is actually overregulated in this regard. After all, we do need  expert guidance on how to deal with certain things. But what is certain is that the burdensome regulatory hurdles in place are counterproductive.  The whole thing reminds me of vehicle inspection in Europe (and some US states).  Europe requires high standards of vehicle maintenance: you can't drive your car there unless it is safe and meets minimum emissions standards. That's fine, and I appreciate its worth every time I see a filthy truck belching fumes on the I-40.  And cars with brakes that work reduce crash risks. What I am against, however, is Europe's compulsory vehicle inspection.  In Germany and the UK everyone must take time out and pay through the nose to get their car tested every year. That's overkill and not a cost-effective way to increase road safety. It would be much better to send everyone the book of requirements and tell them they can be randomly tested and, if their car doesn't measure up, fined. That would cut red tape and stop wasting everybody's time and money. 

The same goes for science ethics. Rather than force us to dispiritingly wade through molasses every time, give us the book of rules, tell us we must obey it and that we can either  volunteer to go through the committee (if we are uncertain about things) or run the risk of getting randomly investigated.  That shifts the responsibility to scientists while eliminating wasteful, expensive and time-consuming procedures.


  1. I love your blog suggestion that we penalize wrongdoers in science rather than require every protocol to submit to advance inspection, just as we should fine cars that are not up to standard rather than having a permitting process.

    The analogy could be taken one step further. In cars, at least the standards are objective: so much brake lining, tire depth, and acceptable exhaust emissions. But in ethics review, the standards are wholly subjective, which is why studies presented to multiple ethics boards invariably receive different responses. My favorite is the case in which a single board, acting on two different occasions, accepted a protocol as low risk once, and rejected it as unduly hazardous on the other.

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    1. Yes, Simon, they don't seem to always be consistent in risk estimation! Great blog, as I mentioned above. I'll check in on it regularly.