Clinical research has undergone remarkable and beneficial expansion in the past 25 years, but with this growth has come an unprecedented increase in workload for the human subjects protection system. Recently, a major change in federal oversight of local institutional review boards (IRBs) became evident. Although it was not announced publicly, in 1998 and 1999 federal regulatory actions against local IRBs increased threefold. Particularly notable was the marked increase in regulatory actions taken against the IRBs of academic medical centers (1 in 1997 compared with 14 in 1999). Ironically, this apparent federal crackdown began at the same time that two federal review panels called for major changes in the regulations governing local IRBs. A key factor in the current crisis in the function of local IRBs is the ascendance of multicenter clinical trials as the dominant form of clinical research. Local IRBs were not designed to handle the initial evaluation and ongoing review required by the rapidly increasing number of multicenter clinical trials. Furthermore, local IRB review of the thousands of safety reports from multicenter clinical trials monopolizes resources without promoting patient safety. Instead of rigid enforcement of outmoded regulations that do not contribute to patient safety, the responsibilities of the local IRB in the oversight of multicenter clinical trials must be systematically evaluated.