McGill launches review of asbestos research

Dean of Medicine says it’s “unlikely” the review will find anything

A week after coming under criticism for its past and present connections with the Quebec asbestos industry, McGill launched a review into the research of one of its retired professors.

Last Thursday, VP (Health Affairs) and Dean of Medicine David Eidelman announced that the faculty had appointed Rebecca Fuhrer, chair of McGill’s Department of Epidemiology, Biostatistics, and Occupational Health, to conduct a preliminary review of the research of John Corbett McDonald, an emeritus professor in the department.

Fuhrer has not given a deadline for the completion of her preliminary review, but in an email she wrote, “The timeline for this preliminary review will depend on the time that is needed to respond accurately to the remit I have been given by the Dean.”

In a statement, Eidelman said Fuhrer’s review “is being undertaken to ensure that the research of Professor McDonald was conducted according to the rigorous scientific standards for which McGill is known.”

“The outcome of Professor Fuhrer’s review will determine whether there is a need for a more detailed investigation, in accordance with our standard policies and procedures,” continues Eidelman’s statement.

Kathleen Ruff, senior human rights adviser for the Ottawa-based Rideau Institute, said the circumstances of the review “are such that it clearly raises issues of conflict of interest.”

“It is not acceptable; it does not have credibility to do an in-house investigation of the department, by the department,” continued Ruff.

A group of academics and health experts ­– many of whom, including Ruff, initially condemned McGill’s asbestos connections – have signed a letter criticizing the internally-conducted preliminary review. The letter was published last Friday.

The letter calls specifically for McGill to revisit a complaint filed in September 2002 by David Egilman, a clinical associate professor at Brown University and signatory to the letter. Egilman’s complaint, addressed to Robert E. MacKenzie, the then-associate dean of graduate studies and research, alleged that McDonald had manipulated data and cited supporting data that did not exist.

“I asked them three questions. I think they should answer those three questions, and they need to publish the answers to those three questions,” said Egilman in an interview with The Daily.

With regards to his 2002 complaint, Egilman received a response from McGill 16 months later, stating that his grievance was “unfounded.”

“If the data’s there, [Eidelman] could end the investigation in about five minutes,” continued Egilman.

Egilman sent his three questions, along with his supporting evidence, to Eidelman last Saturday, copying both Fuhrer and six news outlets – including The Daily – on the email.

Fuhrer replied the next day, confirming that Egilman’s documents “will be added to those that we are collecting.”

Fernand Turcotte, lead signatory of the letter and professor emeritus of Public Health and Preventive Medicine at the Université Laval, said that the outcome of the current review is crucial to “preserving the credibility of McGill as an institution.”

“If this second attempt at dealing properly with the questions – that were perfectly legitimate, [which] were raised by Dr. Egilman – if this is missed a second time, well that’s going to become a problem on its own,” said Turcotte.

Eidelman addressed Egilman’s 2002 complaint in an interview with the Montreal Gazette.

“It’s a very painful episode for us at McGill to have these allegations made, but we have to follow standard procedure,” Eidelman told the Gazette. “If you ask me, we are unlikely to find anything this time either.”

Ruff believes Eidelman’s statements supporting McDonald have prejudiced Fuhrer’s review.

“The instructions and statement that Dean Eidelman gave create a tainted atmosphere, create a prejudiced atmosphere, which makes the whole exercise suspect,” she said.

Esli Osmanlliu, president of the McGill Medical Students’ Society, said he felt comfortable with the faculty’s response, though he added that it was “shocking to hear those allegations” against McDonald.

“I don’t have access to the sources justifying the allegations in the documentary, but it is still worrying to think that there may have been some influences from the industry when the research was conducted,” he said.

“I believe [Fuhrer] is very well suited to undergo this review,” he continued. “I think the review is actually a very good thing, because as long as it stands, those are allegations.”

SSMU President Maggie Knight said the review would likely come up at this Wednesday’s Senate meeting.

“It’s an issue that’s very much related to the academic premise of the University and the academic integrity of our research,” said Knight.

“We come here, we work hard, and we want to know that people have faith in the research that comes out of McGill,” she continued.

In the Senate meeting, a motion from the floor to encourage the issuing of a public statement regarding asbestos research at McGill was tabled until Fuhrer’s review is completed.