Harming while Seeking to Prevent Harm: A Notice of From Oversight to Overkill

April 2023

Simon N. Whitney, From Oversight to Overkill: Inside the Broken System That Blocks Medical Breakthroughs—And How We Can Fix It. Rivertowns Books, Irvington, New York, 2023.

Over the last three years with COVID, the public and media have had occasions to confront some of the questions and problems associated with the ethics of scientific research. Emergency use authorizations, liability waivers, mandatory participation, disregard for public harm, and other policies have made headlines, and generated heated discussion, public and private.

Dr. Simon Whitney has a new book directed to the public which explains how government policies developed and then were repeatedly transformed, and produced in American universities what came to be called Institutional Review Boards (IRBs), the counterparts of which in Canada are called Research Ethics Boards (REBs).

The public stands to benefit from knowing more about how scientific research is actually done, how funding (government) affects research, how research proposals work, and how the associated bureaucracies function and have grown.

Dr. Whitney is well qualified for the task. He is now retired, with a long and varied history of experience with IRBs, enabled by both medical (MD) and legal (JD) credentials and expertise, as well as clinical practice. “From oversight to overkill” indeed captures the story he tells, which is directed to the interested layman, and others.

I have had some concerns over the years that medical research ethics committees may not provide a good model for research across the entire campus, but that’s largely about details. The higher-level concerns that Whitney addresses, such as hindering or blocking research, are a very general problem across campus. There is no question that the entire campus has an interest in how these Research Boards have come to hindering research. This overkill ends up harming the public as a result, and Dr. Whitney describes many such instances of just how the harm can be documented.

Yes, it’s true that the USA and Canadian ethics bureaucracies differ, but again I think more in the details, whereas they unfortunately share the problem of overreach, and hindering or even censoring research and innovation.

What to do? Bureaucracies are resistant to feedback and reform, some would say almost impervious. One can hope that a more informed public will do what academic debate has not been able to deliver. Dr. Whitney’s book is available from Amazon in Kindle, hardcover, and paperback formats.