Last week, the McGill community, learned that an internal report prepared by Doctor Abraham Fuks, the Research Integrity Officer at McGill, found no evidence of misconduct on the part of retired McGill researcher John Corbett Macdonald and his corporate-sponsored research on asbestos.
The mineral, naturally abundant in Quebec, has increasingly gained a reputation as one of the most dangerous industrial materials in existence. Now known to be a cause of numerous types of cancers, including mesothelioma, nations across the world have begun banning the product’s import. Until recently, however, Canada still exported asbestos to countries with few, or nonexistent, safety standards using research like McGill’s, which emphasized the relative safety of certain types of the mineral.
A CBC documentary that aired last year raised questions about Macdonald’s private funding, citing evidence that the Quebec Asbestos Mining Association had indirectly given over $1.1 million to the University to be used for research between 1966 and 1974. Amidst public outcry, including a letter from public health officials across Canada and the preeminent asbestos expert Dr. David Egilman, from Brown University, McGill’s Dean of Medicine David Eidelman called for an inquiry in April 2012.
Unfortunately, the McGill report, released Wednesday to the Board of Governors, Senate, and general public, is nothing more than an attempt by the University to whitewash the role it played in promoting the mineral. The paramount issue in this internal investigation (a type of navel-gazing McGill has proven wont to do on other controversial issues) is that it failed to contact those who initially protested McGill’s involvement. It is difficult to imagine how a fair inquiry could have been conducted without any input from the main critics. Moreover, the University does not address the fact that Macdonald’s research was based on data that even McGill seems incapable of finding – information that was most likely fabricated. The notion that this lack of crucial information is “no basis to presume that the analyses…are flawed” defies all reason and logic.
Instead of trying to defend its reputation, McGill should have used the report as an opportunity to apologize for its obvious ties to the industry. For decades, it allowed its name to be used to market a product responsible for the death of millions of people worldwide. Macdonald was not a researcher; he was a lobbyist. The fact that the University does not find fraudulent corporate-sponsored research problematic is worrisome indeed.
When pressed on the larger issues at stake with public-private partnerships, the administration stated that more discussion could take place at a conference at some point in the future. This tactic of deferral, of shirking accountability, allows McGill to continue producing harmful research in places throughout our university. Perhaps McGill has technically updated its research policies since, but this does not mean that it has changed the nature of profit-oriented research with destructive effects. Research supporting the weapons and mining industries are only two examples. It is not about rules or technicalities; it is about the larger social and environmental consequences of profitable research. It’s about the abuse of the McGill name – where a prestigious university’s reputation was used to legitimize exporting a deadly substance.
McGill has effectively stifled the possibility an independent, external investigation. We will never know the true extent of Macdonald’s fraud. What we do know, however, is that the repercussions of privatized research at McGill are a pressing reality that must be dealt with.