Reflection 4: IRB and School District Review—A Necessary Slow Down

I25th Anniversary Butterflyn Reflection #3, Emily Skidmore talked about how you can’t rush measuring outcomes and advocated for slowing down and conducting front-end and formative evaluation to improve exhibitions, programs, and experiences prior to jumping into measuring outcomes.  I’d like to piggy-back on the slow movement and talk about Institutional Review Board (IRB) and school district review, which is Slow with a capital ‘s’—for better or worse.

IRB is a formally designated board that reviews social science, biomedical, and behavioral research to determine whether the benefits of the research outweigh the risks for the participants in the study.  To be blunt, IRB can be a real thorn in our side.  It requires extensive, tedious paperwork for something we may consider innocuous (e.g., interviewing teachers about their program experience).  Given the many forms and thorough explanations of research procedures required, we spend a lot of time preparing for IRB, and then there is the fee to the external IRB to review the paperwork and methodology.  In addition to the budgetary implications IRB has for our clients, IRB procedures also can significantly delay the research well past when the museum may have expected its research to take place.  Not all of our work requires IRB review, but generally, most research projects where we measure outcomes do.

When our work includes collecting data from students and teachers, we sometimes have to submit our protocols to 1609_Color_Nit-Picking_IRBschool districts for formal review too.  School district review is separate from IRB review, although a school district’s criteria for reviewing research protocols are normally akin to IRB criteria.  Nevertheless, it is yet another required process that can really put the brakes on a project.  For instance, one school district took five months to review our project—much to the chagrin of our client and its funder (understandably so).

At times, IRB and school district reviews can feel like ridiculous hoops that we have to jump through, or bureaucracy at its worst.  As Don Mayne’s cartoon portrays, sometimes the IRB feels like a bunch of nitpicky people who exist solely to make our lives more difficult when we and our museum clients simply want to improve experiences for museum visitors.  So as I justify our sampling procedures for the fifteenth time in the required paperwork, I may shake my head and curse under my breath, but I truly do appreciate the work that IRB and school districts do (I swear there aren’t IRB reviewers holding my feet to the fire as I type!).

When I take a moment and step back, I realize that the process of submitting to IRB forces me to think through all the nitty-gritty details of the research process, which ultimately improves the research and protects museum visitors as research participants.  The extreme assumptions any given IRB makes about our research—(no, I will not be injecting anyone with an unknown substance)—I try not to take them personally and simply respond as clearly and concisely as possible.  And I have gotten pretty good at navigating the system at this point.  Then, I hold our client’s hand, try to protect them from as much of the paperwork and tedium as I can, and tell them, ever so gently, that their research may be delayed.

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