David Prottas is an Associate Professor and Vice President of Grievances for Adelphi University. He also happens to be wrapping up his last term as head of the IRB. Before bidding Dr. Prottas adieu, we sat down with him to get the nitty-gritty on the Adelphi IRB.
The following interview was edited and condensed.
JDK: You had an incredibly successful career in finance… What made you get into academia?
DP: Well, I wouldn’t say I was tremendously successful, but I liked what I did. I was a banker. I was on the deals side. We’re all deal junkies, and I was on the deals side. After several years of chasing the deal, the high wasn’t high—and it wasn’t lasting as long. I said to myself, “I like what I’m doing now. But will I like it five or seven years from now? No, I won’t. What then?”
JDK: Ok, so what then?
DP: When I was working on my M.B.A., there was a faculty member who worked in the industry, then went back for his M.B.A., and then continued his education and ended up a full professor. He was happy and dedicated to his new—but related—type of work. I figured, “If he could do something like that, so can I.”
JDK: Now that you made the professional transition, having gone back to graduate school for a Ph.D. in business and made your way to Garden City, let’s talk about your role here with the IRB… For starters, why did you choose to serve the IRB, relative to other options?
DP: It’s easy. There was [a well-known professor whose methods were questioned] and his story hit newspapers the year I entered my doctoral program. That showed me that all researchers could use a second or third pair of eyes on their research.
JDK: I appreciate the need for a second or third pair of eyes. I’m sure that joining the IRB was not a fast-track to making friends in the university community…
DP: Understandably, people can get upset with the IRB. (“How dare anyone second-guess me? I have extra knowledge.”)
But the truth is that we all have cognitive biases; it makes it hard for people to properly and consistently evaluate themselves.
We humans are not good at that, especially when we know how bright and well-intentioned we are.
One of the reasons I got involved was that I found it interesting to see what other people—students and faculty—are doing on campus. There’s not a tremendous degree of interaction between schools. The IRB brings together folks from every part of campus.
JDK: When you reject an IRB proposal, is it like Trump saying, “You’re fired!”? At least that’s how many folks feel when your office sends its rejection notices.
DP: Each application is examined in its entirety: methodology, questionnaire, setting, inclusion criteria, issues with coercion, where it takes place, and if harm takes place what effective remediation can be done.
The person submitting the IRB proposal can certainly feel rejected, but that’s not the goal — nor the sentiment we wish to imbue. So not so much a rejection issue — faculty get it, students don’t always. Their responsibility is to understand their research enough so that they under- stand their work with humans, and that they’ve thought actively about this in their research design or remediation attempts.
JDK: Is there anything about applications from Derner that makes us unique in terms of IRB submissions?
DP: Derner is pretty much the only program, with rare exception, that uses experimental design. We have a lot of people doing survey-based quantitative research throughout the university (like the schools of Nursing & Social Work). Units like exercise science and communication disorders that do physical stuff.
JDK: Could you speak a bit to the streamlined “exemption” status?
DP: The past year, we’ve changed our practices for classifying things as exempt. At this stage, a bit over half of the applications from Derner folk are classified as exempt. One of the things we’ve been trying to do is streamline the process a bit for efficiency’s sake.
JDK: However, isn’t there a lot that’s not exempt? I heard that the IRB has concerns about Internet research.
DP: Clearly, people want to use it. It’s cheaper than paper/pencil, theoretically opens up [research] to the entire world of participants (there’s even Amazon Turk, where one can pay for participants). And finding in-person participants is horribly difficult and painful. I think the tensions come from what the researchers want to ask people. These are potentially sensitive and disturbing questions for these people. We don’t care particularly if you’re doing this on paper/pencil or online, but gosh—we think it’s really important that you know that the person can obtain mental health assistance…and that you can facilitate it. Yes, there’s friction.
JDK: Would you say that methodology and graduate-level research are your biggest concern as head of the IRB?
DP: It comes down to the human subjects. Look at a questionnaire, for example. If you have five measures, and five sets of questions being asked at the same time, what’s the impact on the person? Is it relevant?
We see submissions where people remark on a particular instrument in isolation and say, “it’s no undue stress,” but what about when we are using five different instruments during the same moment of data collection? What might be the cumulative impact?
JDK: When you were working on your Ph.D. dissertation in business what challenges did you face in conceptualizing your study?
DP: My study went through the IRB without a problem.
*Please note that no human subjects were compromised at any time during this interview.