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Conference leaves questions unanswered about research, ethics at McGill

While this week’s “Asbestos: Dialogue for the Future” conference touched on a wide range of issues related to McGill’s history with research ethics and asbestos research, the event left a number of questions unanswered. In particular, some alleged that there was not enough explanation of the University’s next step forward in terms of its research ethics policy, a question that the conference attempted to address throughout the course of the day.

Questions remain on University’s research ethics policy

The conference left Kathleen Ruff, senior advisor to the Rideau Institute, who presented on McGill’s failure to adequately address asbestos research at the university, largely unsatisfied with its outcome.

While Ruff congratulated McGill on holding the conference in her initial presentation, she also critiqued what she saw as the University’s silence on its contentious history with both former professor John Corbett McDonald’s research and corporate-sponsored research at large.

“I absolutely do not think at all that the conference was enough,” Ruff told The Daily. “It’s not a substitute for doing the right thing. […] The shadow on McGill’s reputation will not go away until it addresses this issue properly, and so the conference was a fine thing to do.”

Ruff said that conference guest speaker David Egilman’s presentation, “The Past is Prologue: Universities in Service to Corporations: The McGill-QAMA Asbestos Example,” brought up a litany of criticisms against the University that remain unaddressed. Furthermore, she noted that such behaviour represents a pattern of ethical leniency at the university.

“If a professor at McGill goes and lobbies to advance the interests of the industry and to oppose health measures, and not only does not disclose, but falsely says, ‘I have no connection with that industry,’ does McGill feel this is appropriate conduct?” Ruff asked. “McGill has always refused to answer that question. I think they need to answer that question, because they need to set an ethical standard.”

However, David Eidelman, Dean of Medicine, pushed back against the notion that the University’s ethical standards are unclear. Eidelman also emphasized that the criticism brought forth by Ruff and Egilman is a significant source of contention.

“There are people who believe that Kathleen Ruff and Dr. Egilman are misrepresenting what [McDonald] said. There are other people who say, ‘no they’re not misrepresenting it, they’re absolutely correct,’” Eidelman said. “That to me sounds like an academic controversy. Universities are about academic controversies.”

“I believe the function of a university is to allow people to say what they have to say, and where possible, to put data behind it to prove it,” he said.

SSMU VP University Affairs Joey Shea, one of the primary actors involved in organizing the conference, also pushed back against some of the criticisms brought forward by Egilman, calling parts of his presentation “a bit sensationalist, regardless of where you are on the political spectrum.”

Despite pointing to the criticisms of McDonald’s research as largely an academic controversy, Eidelman acknowledged that there are certain questions to be addressed at the university.

“The fact that there’s no research misconduct doesn’t mean that there’s no problem. That’s why I wanted the conference,” he said.

No easy solutions to questions of for-profit research in academic settings

The conference’s closing panel had a broader scope, addressing the ethics of corporate research at McGill. In recognition of the controversy surrounding McDonald’s asbestos research, Eidelman highlighted the last panel as crucial for talking about the larger issue of private sector investment in universities.

The speakers tackled various ethical complications of for-profit research at publicly funded universities. All were unified in stressing the need to reconcile private with public interests, though not at the expense of academic freedom.

“Academic freedom is a terribly important topic that universities have to take perhaps more seriously than they have,” explained Daniel Weinstock, a professor in McGill’s Faculty of Law and one-time director of the Research Centre on Ethics at the Université de Montréal. “But we have to approach this in an all-encompassing manner, [and] that includes both government and corporate threats to academic freedom.”

Weinstock warned tha too often, “Ethics [are] very superficial, [they are] something that we think about at the tail-end.” He added that research ethics are divorced from moral implications and have come to be seen as a bureaucratic control.

Though the speakers all recognized the importance of the issues discussed, none offered  any solutions, inviting criticism from some audience members.

“The afternoon panel didn’t address the issues we put forward. It dealt more with general issues about communication. It spoke about corporate social responsibility,” said Ruff.

“They didn’t address any […] of the issues in our complaint or any of our criticisms, and they didn’t provide any answers on the very serious and disturbing questions we’d raised about the failure of McGill to [deal] with our complaints. The evidence I put forward, I think, was very clear and damning.”

The Research Ethics Office (IRB) at McGill operates a review process of research proposals that Ruff criticized as “biased, lacking in transparency, and incorrect.”

Eidelman, in part, agreed with Ruff. “We think that the biggest challenge for this university in terms of research ethics is post-monitoring.”

He elaborated that mechanisms to assess whether research has been carried out as planned should exist, alongside procedures to see whether IRB approvals are justified.

“That’s something which we’ve never done at McGill,” Eidelman admitted. “Right now, to be honest, I don’t think we have the resources to do it. This is something we should certainly think about.”

After the conference, Ruff sent an email to conference participants and organizers to reiterate her questions surrounding the University’s research ethics policy, which was also made available to The Daily.

The first situation that Ruff addressed involved the hypothetical situation of an industry-funded McGill researcher intervening at a public policy hearing and using their privately funded research to influence policy in that field. Ruff asked if the University’s ethical standards “require or expect that the academic should disclose the fact that his/her research is financially supported by the industry in question.”

Secondly, Ruff asked if it were “acceptable,” under University standards, for the academic to deny any connection to the industry financing or supporting their research.

After inquiring if McGill’s ethical standards address such a situation, Ruff requested documentation and asked if the University is concerned with such an issue. “Is McGill prepared to examine and to adopt ethical standards so that these actions would be addressed and so that McGill academics and the wider public would know what McGill’s position is?” she wrote.

The question of research ethics at McGill remains up in the air. Echoing an earlier discussion with Principal Suzanne Fortier, Shea told The Daily that when it comes to ethical standards and corporate-sponsored research, McGill has “a reputation of having particularly tricky regulations in comparison to other institutions.”