Stern Lessons For Terrorism Expert

Kennedy School researcher tangles with Harvard ethics board

Unnamed photo
Anton S. Troianovski

Jessica E. Stern, a Kennedy School lecturer and former National Security Council advisor, has navigated Jordanian prisons and Indonesian alleys to meet terrorists and learn how they think.

Jessica E. Stern left for Amsterdam last week, hoping to meet a group of female jihadists.

She wasn’t afraid. The Kennedy School lecturer and former National Security Council advisor has navigated Jordanian prisons and Indonesian alleys to meet terrorists and learn how they think. Now, as she looked to explore Islamic extremism in the Netherlands, she had found an unexpected holdup: not a band of gun-toting terrorists but a group of rule-bearing regulators.

One of Harvard’s federally mandated Institutional Review Boards (IRBs), which reviews the plans of University researchers who hope to study human subjects, required her to read a script to her interview subjects that warned that she would inform the authorities if they told her of any specific plans to commit violence.

“As a researcher, that is frustrating not because I want people to tell me those things—I don’t—but because I don’t want to be so explicit,” Stern said in an interview just before leaving for Amsterdam. “It just reminds them that they have done bad things...or that when they talk to me, maybe I’m not on their side.”

Stern eventually did meet with the jihadists, having already worked with the review board to develop a system in which she doesn’t learn the real names of the people she interviews.

Her decades of research on terrorism—involving confrontations with IRBs, Harvard, and the federal government—shed light on the special obstacles faced by academics hoping to study sensitive issues.

IRBs are coming under increasing criticism inside the ivory tower, with professors blaming the groups for stifling academic freedom in order to follow overly rigid rules that claim to protect human research subjects. Medical School professor Edward Greg Koski ’71, former director of the federal office that oversees IRBs, said: “In the ‘cover your ass’ mentality that has developed over the last decade, we’re now in a situation where IRBs do really foolish, stupid things in the name of protecting human subjects but really to cover themselves.”

And yet, Stern said that it is thanks to the Harvard IRB’s support that she is now able to conduct her research relatively free of government interference. In the wake of a hard-won fight against a Washington subpoena in 2001—a case in which Harvard refused to help—the University is now working with Stern to protect her notes and her sources from federal review.


Ethics review boards have operated at Harvard since the 1960s, and the Standing Committee on the Use of Human Subjects in Research monitors 1,000 to 1,200 studies by students and professors in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Business School, Law School, Kennedy School of Government, and Harvard’s other non-medical divisions each year, according to committee officers.

Their principal goal is to prevent researchers from harming their subjects.

“There is just something a little odd that I have to demonstrate that I’m not going to harm a subject when the subject has a Kalashnikov,” Stern said, “but I must protect the subject.”

“Most subjects, happily, aren’t armed,” Dean R. Gallant, assistant dean for research policy, said of Stern’s work. Gallant and other research experts stressed that the risks to Stern’s subjects are real.

“It wouldn’t be too farfetched to imagine that if someone in a terrorist network were to be discovered giving information, well, that’s another beheading waiting to happen,” Koski, who directed the Federal Office for Human Resources Protections when it was created in 2000, said in a phone interview.

It was the directive to prevent any harm from coming to her subjects that tripped up Stern in the Netherlands.

“Some reporters here in Amsterdam are inviting me to meet their sources connected with a terror group here,” Stern wrote in an e-mail last week, “but they are not happy with the script I would have to read to the subject warning that confidentiality would be breached if they tell me about specific jihadi plans.”

Stern is not the only terrorism researcher to feel that institutional review boards unnecessarily limit her. Scott Atran, a Middle East ethnographer at the University of Michigan, recently sent an essay to his colleagues about his struggles with the IRB process.

“Now it’s getting next to impossible to even talk to people who are dying to kill in order to better understand why they die to kill, or just why they want what they want,” Atran wrote in the unpublished piece, which he provided to The Crimson.

“My own view is that most of this is nuts,” Atran wrote. “How is anybody in academia ever going to have as much as possible to offer in this whole mess—though people in academia keep complaining that the government doesn’t pay attention to serious scholars—if no one can even talk to the people most involved?”


The government seems to be paying attention to at least one serious scholar.

In January 2001, having only been in office three days, U.S. Attorney General John D. Ashcroft subpoenaed Stern’s notes from an interview with an alleged American bioterrorist.

Stern turned to the Harvard General Counsel’s office but, she said, the University refused to help.

“They said, ‘Well, we can’t help you. You’re going to want to hire a lawyer,’” Stern said, recalling her conversation with the General Counsel’s office. “They said, ‘The publisher should give you a lawyer. We’re not going to protect you.’”

Through her cousin, Stern found David O. Stewart, a lawyer in the Washington office of Ropes & Gray, a firm that also happens to represent Harvard.

“Harvard has plenty of lawyers,” Stewart said in a phone interview, grasping for an answer as to why Harvard wouldn’t represent Stern.

The University would not confirm the details of the case, but head lawyer Robert W. Iuliano ’83 said in a statement that “the Office of the General Counsel, however, takes seriously the importance of protecting faculty research notes and data from inappropriate disclosure.”

Stewart convinced the government that Stern’s notes would not aid its case. Still, “it was awful,” Stern said about the experience.

Following the review board’s advice, Stern has developed a system where she does not learn the names of many of the people she is interviewing—preferring to use pseudonyms—thus protecting the privacy of her interviewees and making her notes less valuable to federal investigators.


For some Harvard professors, the IRB process remains an enigmatic one.

Terry Aladjem, a lecturer in Social Studies whose students sometimes visit prisons to complete research, wrote in an e-mail that “it’s hard to comment on this because the process is so cryptic and idiosyncratic.”

He said his students often can’t anticipate the reasons why the institutional review board will reject a proposal.

Kenneth L. Carson, a member of the Committee on the Use of Human Subjects, said that research officers speak to juniors in Social Studies as well as psychology concentrators to discuss the IRB process.

“We meet with people in order to show people that we are not just this black hole that a form goes into and some arbitrary decision goes out of at the end,” Gallant, the research officer, said.

“I assumed that I was the big problem child for the IRB,” Stern said, laughing. “But it turns out there are other people who do stuff that gets the IRB very excited.”

In their excitement, the review board has in certain cases taken so long to approve Stern’s request that she has been unable to do her research, she said. She had secured interviews with a group of radical black Muslims but by the time the IRB approved of the research—six months later—her “access had dried up.”

Research officers said that nearly nine out of ten reviews take less than four weeks to process and approve. “We’re very anxious to fulfill our responsibilities to Harvard and the government but also to get them out the door to do their work,” Gallant said.


Reflecting on her research, Stern said she finds the IRB playing a guiding role.

“Before I came to Harvard, I had pretty remarkable interviews with terrorists,” Stern said. Stern had spent most of her career outside of the academy. “There are a lot of reasons that those kind of interviews would be hard today. One of them is the post-September 11 environment, but the other is the IRB strictures.”

Professors still praise Harvard’s flexibility.

Gottlieb Professor of Law Elizabeth Warren, who has done extensive research on bankruptcy, said she has “never encountered an IRB as helpful as Harvard’s” but added that “there are IRBs that act as if it is their job to block any research involving human subjects.”

“The Harvard IRB is remarkable. They’re not there to block research. They are there to make it better,” Warren said.

Despite her difficulties, Stern agreed. “Harvard’s IRB is the only one I know of to approve the kind of research I do. They’ve bent over backwards to make what I do possible, which is better than any other IRB,” she said.

But Koski remains critical of the job review boards are doing throughout the country. He said he sees no end in sight to conflict between professors and regulators.

“I think we’re just going to keep going around in circles.”

—Staff writer Samuel P. Jacobs can be reached