Campus-wide emails, posters lining hallways of academic buildings and Orbit posts often contain calls for students to participate as subjects in experiments. Though it may be less visible, the Institutional Review Board (IRB) plays a key role in the execution of research on campus. At Bowdoin, any project involving human subjects must be submitted to the IRB for review.

This process ensures the safety and ethical treatment of those involved in the large number of projects conducted by Bowdoin faculty, staff and students on campus. These studies can only proceed once the IRB has reviewed them.

Chair of the committee, Professor of Psychology Sam Putnam monitors the front end of this process as he determines whether a proposal will be exempt from review and immediately approved, expedited to an individual committee member, or subject to full review by the committee. 

“One thing that we want to do is minimize the likelihood of harm,” said Putnam. “In the situations where there is some risk, and participating in the study does expose you to some risk, then it really shifts to an effort to make sure that the subject knows very explicitly and very completely what they’re getting into.”

The IRB currently consists of six committee members: Putnam, Lecturer in Chemistry Michael Danahy, Assistant Professor of Neuroscience and Psychology Erika Nyhus and Associate Professor of Sociology and Anthropology Krista Van Vleet.

In addition, the IRB has two non-faculty members, Bowdoin’s Director of Sponsored Research Cara Martin-Tetreault and community member Herbert Paris.

The members of the IRB are appointed by the Faculty Committee for Governance. Generally, the group is composed of faculty in science and social science departments, with a limited number of members from outside of those disciplines.

“We have individuals who are involved in the committee that don’t have a Bowdoin affiliation, that give viewpoints that aren’t tied to Bowdoin,” said Putnam.

He added that the IRB would like to add even more community voices to its proceedings.
Most projects are not immediately exempt from review. Instead, they are delegated to members of the committee and receive varying levels of review.

Putnam said the board especially focuses on studies involving vulnerable populations and those that include potentially harmful practices like deception. Studies that involve sensitive information surrounding subjects’ social or legal standing are also scrutinized closely. 

Bowdoin holds regularly-scheduled confidential monthly meetings to address full review projects. About half of the deliberations result in verdicts that require some changes to be made. Most changes are minor and do not largely affect the projects. Very rarely does the IRB classify proposals as impossible to conduct. 

“I think there have been two cases over my time on the board where the request that we made ultimately ended up in the research not taking place,” Putnam said. 

An important distinction to make is that the IRB does not judge the merit of the projects. While members may have opinions on other aspects of the proposal, the board’s real concern is addressing any ethical concerns.

“Many of us are social scientists. Some might say, ‘This is not a good way to study this, they’re not going to prove what they’re trying to prove,’” said Putnam. “But that’s really not my job.”

Over the course of the year, the IRB typically sees about 50 cases, impacting a large number of student and faculty projects. September tends to be busiest, while January, late spring and summer also see a lot of proposals in concurrence with new semesters and summer break.

“We’re charged to protect human subjects, so it’s really to make sure that no one who’s participating in research at Bowdoin is harmed,” said Putnam.