Although working with biological specimens will be new and unfamiliar to many social scientists, it is an area in which biomedical researchers have a great deal of expertise and experience. Many existing documents describe recommended procedures and laboratory practices for the handling of biospecimens. These documents provide an excellent starting point for any social scientist who is interested in adding biospecimens to survey research.

Recommendation 1: Social scientists who are planning to add biological specimens to their survey research should familiarize themselves with existing best practices for the collection, storage, use, and distribution of biospecimens. First and foremost, the design of the protocol for collection must ensure the safety of both participants and survey staff (data and specimen collectors and handlers).

Although existing best-practice documents were not developed with social science surveys in mind, their guidelines have been field-tested and approved by numerous IRBs and ethical oversight committees. The most useful best-practice documents are updated frequently to reflect growing knowledge and changing opinions about the best ways to collect, store, use, and distribute biological specimens. At the same time, however, many issues arising from the inclusion of biospecimens in social science surveys are not fully addressed in the best-practice documents intended for biomedical researchers. For guidance on these issues, it will be necessary to seek out information aimed more specifically at researchers at the intersection of social science and biomedicine.


As described in Chapter 2, the collection, storage, use, and distribution of biospecimens and biodata are tasks that are likely to be unfamiliar to many social scientists and that raise a number of issues with which even specialists are still grappling. For example, which biospecimens in a repository should be shared, given that in most cases the amount of each specimen is limited? And given that the available technology for cost-efficient analysis of biospecimens, particularly genetic analysis, is rapidly improving, how much of any specimen should be used for immediate research and analysis, and how much should be stored for analysis at a later date? Collecting, storing, using, and distributing biological specimens also present significant practical and financial challenges for social scientists. Many of the questions they must address, such as exactly what should be held, where it should be held, and what should be shared or distributed, have not yet been resolved.

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