PRIM&R’s founding started with a small group of committed, principled individuals who gathered in 1973 to discuss the future of medical research in Massachusetts. Among the issues that most concerned them was the indictment of four doctors who were conducting fetal research at the Boston City Hospital. A second rallying point was the Controlled Substances Act, a new law that restricted research on psychoactive drugs with persons institutionalized in state hospitals.
PRIM&R's founders weren't concerned with local problems only; they were also keenly aware of new research regulations developed in response to the exposé of the United States Public Health Service Syphilis Study at Tuskegee. That abuse plus revelations of other ethical violations led to the passage of the National Research Act in 1974. Regulations (45 CFR part 46) governing the protection of human subjects and mandating institutional review boards (IRBs) were also enacted that year to be followed by The Belmont Report in 1979. Both a new field and PRIM&R as a formal organization were born that same year and their synergies have remained strong and constructive.
From the outset, professionals working with or affected by IRBs struggled to interpret and apply the new regulatory structures. PRIM&R’s Board of Directors understood that education was the most effective means of easing the process and promoting ethical behavior. PRIM&R’s first conference on human subjects protections in 1977 and was quickly embraced by the research community and federal regulatory agencies as an opportunity to discuss the evolving research rules. Subsequent conferences steadily grew in size and reputation. Buoyed by this early success, the board expanded PRIM&R’s programming to other areas, including institutional animal care and use committees (IACUCs), ethics of HIV/AIDS research, research with special populations, and responsible conduct of research.
In 1985, the Applied Research Ethics National Association (ARENA) was created to provide a home for professionals working with IRBs and IACUCs. ARENA had 61 charter members and was led for 25 years by presidents and council members.