IRB chairs have defined responsibilities and a central and prominent role in IRB activities. The roles and responsibilities of vice chairs are much less defined and usually in the background. Recently, when AAHRPP asked organizations about vice chairs, 93 percent of those responding reported having vice chairs. Seventy-four percent have one vice chair per IRB, while 18 percent have two, 3 percent have three, and 5 percent have four or more vice chairs per IRB. Fixed terms for the vice chair range from a one-year term for 8 percent of organizations and a two-year term for 14 percent to a three-year term for 22 percent, but in 56 percent of organizations there is no fixed limit and the term of the vice chair is indefinite. Fifty-seven percent of organizations compensate their vice chairs, most commonly including a yearly stipend or release time from other responsibilities. The vice chair is usually appointed by the organizational official in consultation with senior HRPP administrators and the IRB chair.
In many non-IRB committee structures, the vice chair is a chair-in-training. For IRB vice chairs, this is true in only 36 percent of organizations. Sixty-four percent of organizations do not consider vice chairs as part of succession planning. The majority of comments indicated that the vice chair might be considered to become the chair or may step in on an interim basis but in general is not considered the heir apparent of the chair.
So then, what is the role of the vice chair? In 97 percent of organizations, the vice chair directs an IRB meeting when the chair cannot attend or must leave a meeting because of a conflict of interest. Most organizations report that except for filling in for the chair, the vice chair acts as any other member would during IRB meetings (when the chair is present). In a few instances the vice chair performs duties such as presenting continuing review applications. Between IRB meetings some vice chairs are given additional responsibilities, the most common being review of protocols by the expedited procedure. In some organizations the vice chair is designated to review adverse events and incidents of non-compliance or to serve on the Conflict of Interest Committee. One organization reported, “We have a chair or vice chair in the office every day of the week. They rotate reviewing responsibilities, provide clarification to IRB staff members, consult with researchers, and are involved with policymaking.” But by far the comment that is most common and most emphasized is that the vice chair is at the ready to step in when the chair is not available, for chairing the IRB meeting, helping staff or researchers, or signing letters.