grant program

Mentor-Connect leader demystifies institutional review boards

By Madeline Patton

Thinking about applying for a National Science Foundation grant? You’ll need an institutional review board process in place for that.

Mentor-Connect, a partnership between the South Carolina Advanced Technological Education Center and American Association of Community Colleges, helps two-year college educators write competitive Advanced Technological Education (ATE) grant proposals to the National Science Foundation (NSF).

The ATE program focuses on improving the education of technicians for advanced technology fields. As NSF’s largest investment in associate-degree-granting institutions, it is an excellent source of funds for innovative faculty who want to start or revamp STEM programs to meet employers’ needs.

A critical step to receiving an NSF grant award is setting up an institutional review board (IRB) process.

“Institution review boards are an important, but frequently overlooked NSF requirement, because two-year college faculty and staff are not familiar with them. Some mistakenly presume having an IRB does not apply to their colleges because they are not ‘research institutions’ in the classic sense,” said Elaine L. Craft, principal investigator of Mentor-Connect, which is an ATE project.

In the Q&A below, Craft demystifies IRBs, and offers this advice to community college administrators: “Set up your own IRB. It is an easy step toward building your college’s institutional capacity for securing an ATE or any other NSF grant. No NSF grant is awarded without documented IRB review and approval.”

Q: What is an IRB?

Elaine Craft (EC): Under NSF regulations (and a number of other federal agencies engaged in funding research) an IRB is an appropriately constituted group that has been formally designated to review and monitor the research of a grant-funded project that involves human subjects. NSF considers all its projects “research.” An IRB is granted the authority to approve, require modifications in, or disapprove research. This review serves an important role in the protection of the rights and welfare of human research subjects.

Q: What is the purpose of an IRB?

EC: An IRB review assures, both in advance and by periodic review when warranted, that appropriate steps are being taken to protect the rights and welfare of humans participating as subjects in federally funded research.

Q: Why would a two-year college need an IRB?

EC: Without a letter from an appropriately-constituted IRB affirming that your ATE proposal to NSF has been reviewed—and stating the IRB determination from that review—you will not be awarded an NSF grant.

Every college being considered for a funding reward is asked to send the determination letter to NSF before an award can be made. Rather than scramble at the point NSF is considering approving a proposal, Mentor-Connect encourages colleges that don’t yet have an IRB to be proactive and form an IRB as faculty write the grant proposal.

Q: How can a two-year college comply with the IRB requirement?

EC:  There are two options.

Option A: Establish an IRB at your two-year college by utilizing Mentor-Connect’s suggested policy wording, procedures, and forms as a guide to establish an IRB at a two-year college. Enter Institutional Review Board in the search function at to find these resources and access a sample decision letter and information about training for IRB members

Option B: Request a review by a nearby university’s IRB. This is permissible, but not ideal because universities’ IRBs usually have more complex procedures.

Q: How does an IRB work?

EC: IRB review is potentially a two-step process.

(1)The initial review is conducted by the IRB chairperson who determines whether any of the proposed activities pose a risk to the rights and welfare of the human subjects (e.g, faculty, students) who will be involved. If not, the proposal is deemed “exempt” and no further review is necessary. A determination letter is issued to this effect.

Note, almost all ATE proposals fall in the “exempt” category.

(2) If the result of the initial review is that the proposal is not exempt for any reason, then all members of the IRB review the proposal and collectively consider how to ensure the protection of human rights and welfare if the proposed research is conducted.

Q: How many people should serve on an IRB, and who should serve on an IRB?

EC: The size of the IRB is determined by the institution, but it should include those who can understand what is being proposed in a grant in terms of human involvement. Mentor-Connect strongly recommends naming IRB members by position and not by person so that procedures will not need to be updated when there are personnel changes over time. The chairperson should be someone who has authority within the institution, familiarity with grants, and an interest in providing timely reviews and unbiased leadership for the full IRB.

For more grant-writing resources visit Mentor-Connect’s library

Madeline Patton

is a contributor to the 21st-Century Center.