Skip to content

Asbestos review lacks “required records”

No evidence of research misconduct so far

McGill announced the conclusion of its review into alleged asbestos research misconduct Wednesday morning, and will seek further guidance as to whether an official investigation should be launched.

Dean of Medicine and Vice-Principal (Health Affairs) David Eidelman wrote in a statement published Wednesday morning that, “Although the report does not identify evidence of research misconduct, it is my conclusion that the Faculty does not currently have all required records and data in hand to assess definitively in regard to research integrity.”

Almost two months ago, Eidelman 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.

Now, Eidelman said he is seeking further guidance from Abraham Fuks, McGill’s Research Integrity Officer (RIO).

McDonald retired from McGill in September 1988, after over two decades as a McGill epidemiology professor. According to a February episode of CBC’s The National, McDonald received at least $1 million between 1966 and 1972 for research into the health effects of chrysotile asbestos from the Quebec Asbestos Mining Association, which received a large portion of its funding from the asbestos mining giant Johns-Manville.

McDonald’s research concluded that chrysotile asbestos is less harmful than other forms of asbestos, and only deadly when a person is exposed to large quantities of it.

Kathleen Ruff, senior advisor on human rights for the Ottawa-based Rideau Institute, said that, “around the world McGill and professor McDonald’s work has been seen as an obstacle to making progress on protecting people from asbestos.”

In an interview with The Daily on Wednesday afternoon, Eidelman said he contacted Fuks last week with questions of how to proceed and “whether a full investigation was necessary or not.”

In his announcement, Eidelman added, “This is not a request to the RIO for an official investigation at this time.”

Eidelman said he is acting under Section 4.2 of McGill’s Regulations Concerning Investigation of Research Misconduct, which states that, “Where a person is unsure whether a suspected incident constitutes Research Misconduct, he or she should seek guidance from the RIO.”

Eidelman said that in order to assess if there has been a breach of research integrity, they would need access to original data, as well as “information about relationships between that person and industry.” According to Eidelman, Fuhrer’s review looked mostly at published works and externally-submitted information.

“Based on what we can see, we certainly do not see evidence of a breach of research integrity,” he continued.

There is no mention of a “preliminary review” into research misconduct in McGill’s Regulations Concerning Investigation of Research Misconduct, and Eidelman said the decision to conduct a preliminary review was “a choice that I made when I first was presented with the information.”

“Usually what we do is we try to put together a package before we send it to the [RIO], even when there’s a formal allegation,” he continued.

Eidelman said that the CBC documentary didn’t qualify as a “legitimate formal allegation of misconduct.”

“But it is something we take very seriously, which is why I immediately asked that we start putting together the information, even in the absence of an allegation,” he said.

The review was criticized by a group of academics and health professionals, who sent McGill a letter calling for an external review of the allegations against McDonald.

Fernand Turcotte, a lead signatory of the letter and professor emeritus of Public Health and Preventive Medicine at the Université Laval, said his first reaction is “to trust the honesty of all the mechanisms that are in place.”

“I am not surprised that Dr. Fuhrer hit the edge of the cliff without having access to all the information that she needed to be able to assume or to finish the mandate that was given to her. It seems to me that the Dean will have no choice but to refer the matter to the Research Integrity Officer of the University,” said Turcotte.

“I think it matters a hell of a lot that McGill University – which is an institution that belongs to all of us – gets rid of the smear that it happens to be the last major university adopting a denialist position on the asbestos question,” he continued.

Eidelman said that calling for an external review is not in McGill’s regulations.

“We don’t usually go directly to an external review. Instead, we try to decide whether, under the regulations, there’s a reason for the Research Integrity Officer to be involved,” said Eidelman.

This is not the first allegation levied against McDonald’s research at McGill. In 2002, David Egilman, a clinical associate professor at Brown University and co-signer of the February letter to McGill, wrote then-associate dean of graduate studies and research alleging that McDonald had manipulated data and cited supporting data that did not exist.

McGill responded 16 months later stating that his grievance was “unfounded.” In an interview with the Montreal Gazette after the launch of Fuhrer’s review, Eidelman addressed Egilman’s allegations, saying, “If you ask me, we are unlikely to find anything this time either.”

Eidelman defended his comments in his interview with The Daily.

“What I stand by is the comment that the investigation has been done in the past and that we would take this very seriously,” said Eidelman.

“I also said that we would start from scratch and not assume anything based on the previous review, which is what we’ve done,” he continued.

Ruff, also a co-signer of the February letter, said she hoped the RIO’s involvement would be “a step on the path to a proper investigation.”

“It is time for McGill to do the right thing, and until it does this cloud will certainly continue to hang over McGill,” she said.