2008 Salary Survey Results

Economic woes may mean less hiring, smaller raises for IRB professionals

Salary survey reveals staffing, workload issues

IRB professionals responding to IRB Advisor's 2008 Salary Survey continue to report modest salary increases and larger staffs over the previous year. But they worry that raises aren't keeping up with increasing workloads and that they and their staffs are burning out.

And with the recent onslaught of bad economic news, the immediate staffing future for IRBs is far from clear, says Susan Kornetsky, MPH, CIP, director of clinical research compliance for Children's Hospital Boston, MA.

"Every place I'm hearing about is pretty much on hold with new staff," she says. "Everyone's being asked to look at their budgets and cut."

Of the 90 respondents to last summer's survey, the largest group – 44%– reported that they had received a 1% to 3% salary increase in the previous year. That's actually slightly down from the 47% who reported a similar increase in the 2007 salary survey. The percentage of respondents' whose salaries stayed the same increased, from 16% in 2007 to 20% in 2008.

Jody Power, MS, MBA, executive director for the Duke University Health System IRB in Durham, NC, says only a few years ago, she was seeing 7% salary increases; now they're down to 2.5% to 3%.

Kornetsky says she was able to increase salaries anywhere from 1% to 4% in her office last year. However, because she had to maintain an average increase of 3%, she had less leeway to provide that top compensation.

"If you have a small office, which many IRBs do, you don't have much leeway to give someone 4%, because that means you have to give someone else 2%," she says.

Kornetsky doesn't believe the limitations on salary increases are due to institutions failing to see the value of IRBs, but simply dealing with the economic realities that universities and hospitals are facing (67% of survey respondents worked in one of these types of institutions).

Power says much of the downturn is related to decreased funding from the National Institutes of Health – a trend she hopes will turn around with the incoming Obama administration.

"I hope this is a very short-term problem," she says.

Sixty-three percent of respondents reported making an annual salary of $50,000 or more, up from 58% in the 2007 survey. Meanwhile, the percentage of people drawing less than $30,000 shrank to less than 6% in 2008, down from 9% in 2007.

As his IRB office replaced personnel last year, Mark S. Schreiner, MD, chair of the Committee for the Protection of Human Subjects at The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, PA, ended up paying the new hires more, in order to get the higher caliber of staff he was looking for.

"These are people who are talented enough that they will move up in research regulatory affairs," Schreiner says. "To get better people we've had to raise our salaries."

Staff and workload

Nearly a quarter of all the 2008 respondents (22 individuals) reported that six or more people worked in their department. This is a significant increase over the 11% (8 individuals) who reported that size staff in 2007. Twenty percent of 2008 respondents said their staff had increased in the past year, compared to 26% in 2007.

Kornetsky was among those who added staff in the last year, gaining one position. But she concedes that if that position had been open only a few months later, the economic meltdown of fall 2008 might have claimed it.

She believes the hiring likely will slow down now as a result of the economy. Professionals she has spoken with already are talking about making non-staffing cuts, such as eliminating travel.

"They're trying to take the cuts outside of salary areas first, but it's very unknown," she says. "No one's saying you can't hire or the position is frozen, but every manager and vice president is looking over the open positions because they know cuts are under way. Most people would much rather not hire into a position than hire and then have to cut."

Power says that when she made two new hires in the last year, she went through a laborious process justifying the salary offers she wanted to make.

As for this year: "We have virtually no chance of getting new positions right now."

Schreiner says he is looking for more educated people as he hires.

"My expectations for what staff will do are greatly expanded," he says. "All of our staff are either CIP certified or they're not eligible for it yet and will be CIP certified. We had some staff that were not even college graduates when I took over three years ago – now we have several people with master's degrees in science."

He acknowledges that some staff have left in the past few years under the pressure of his higher expectations.

Schreiner has created three levels of IRB analyst in his office, with increasing certification and salary levels – a strategy that Kornetsky says other IRB offices are increasingly using to combat turnover.

"People don't necessarily have to go out the door to get to the next level position," she says. "A couple of years ago you were either an IRB administrator or an analyst. I'm seeing (IRBs creating) more levels to promote people from within versus having people leave."

Workload appears to be a significant concern for IRB professionals who responded to the 2008 survey. Nearly 70% of respondents say their workload has increased over the past year – the same percentage as those who responded in 2007.

Power says that at Duke, submissions have increased from 8% to 14% per year.

In the comments section of the survey, many listed variations on "workload" or "burnout" in response to the question "What is your biggest personnel issue?" Many stated that they felt salary increases were too low compared to the increased workload.

Kornetsky says she expects workload issues in the industry to begin to plateau, particularly since federal regulators have taken steps to clarify issues that might have contributed to overwork.

"For example, there's new guidance from (the Office for Human Research Protections) and (Food and Drug Administration) regarding the number of unanticipated problems and events that need to come into the office," she says. "Not everything has to come into the IRB."

Institutions nervous about guidance

She says some institutions are nervous about adopting the guidance, even though it would help reduce their workload.

"I think we've gotten to the point where we were so nervous and scared about regulatory things that some places are doing too much," she says. "I hear time and time again about things IRB offices are doing that they don't have to do."

Schreiner agrees, noting that IRBs often don't use expedited procedures as often as they could be. And he notes that "mission creep" can lead IRBs into areas that they don't need to be doing and that simply add to the load.

"As an example, the IRB's role in HIPAA is relatively limited, but in some places they're involved in privacy for all areas, not just research," Schreiner says. "We need to limit our oversight just to what we're obliged to do. We were doing all kinds of things that I didn't think were appropriate and I just eliminated them."

Electronic systems reduce workload

Electronic systems also can help decrease paperwork and ease the load a bit, Power says.

"Our electronic IRB system has resulted in reduced workloads for our specialists because they no longer have to shuffle paper," she says. "Everything is documented. They don't have to stamp things 'received' or go hunting someone for a signature on an approval letter."

When staff are spending less time on paperwork they can be more proactive, Kornetsky says.

"We used to spend a lot of administrative time moving paperwork around," she says. "Now we can spend a lot more time with investigators educating them and doing more thorough pre-reviews before things go to committee.

"I think what you'll see is a redistribution of how staff are being used as more places go electronic."

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