On Oct. 1, the Faculty of Medicine hosted Asbestos: Dialogue for the Future, a conference designed to address past criticisms of research on asbestos at McGill and to discuss the role of privately funded research at universities.
The conference was organized following a controversy in February 2012, when a CBC documentary challenged the findings of research conducted between 1966 and 1998 by retired McGill professor John Corbett McDonald. McDonald’s studies found that chrysotile asbestos was “essentially innocuous” and that no adverse health effects would come from its use except at extremely high levels.
The documentary accused McDonald of misrepresenting his results and questioned the legitimacy of his research because it was funded by the asbestos industry.
“Professor McDonald’s research is still of huge concern today,” anti-asbestos advocate Kathleen Ruff said at the conference. “The asbestos industry is targeting developing countries, saying that chrysotile asbestos […] can be safely used [even though] no country has ever succeeded in safely using chrysotile asbestos.”
Last October, McGill released the report of an internal investigation on the studies by research integrity officer Abraham Fuks, who concluded that McDonald had publically acknowledged the asbestos industry as his funding source and that he was not guilty of research misconduct. Tuesday’s conference is the result of a recommendation Fuks made in his report.
Dean of Medicine David Eidelman said that the event was planned to allow for an open discussion of the issues surrounding the controversy.
“We made sure it was structured in a way to make sure there was a very open and frank exchange of views, and made sure we seriously considered the issues that were brought up in the context of the McDonald controversy,” he said. “I was very glad to have the people who raised the controversy present so they could present their views.”
These critics included Ruff, who criticized McGill for holding an internal investigation on McDonald’s research rather than allowing an external party to examine the case. At the conference, Ruff emphasized that she will continue to push McGill to retract to McDonald’s initial research despite the conclusions of the internal review.
“It’s a real concern that’s having impact in the real world, so it is important that McGill address this issue,” she said. “McGill should become a leader in Canada to introduce an effective ethical review system that prevents scientific integrity and the public good.”
According to David Egilman, a professor at Brown University and a critic of McDonald’s research in the CBC documentary, the way in which McDonald conducted his research on asbestos points to greater problems in the way corporate-funded research is conducted at universities.
“In [McDonald’s] case, money should have been given to the workers [and] the unions to hire independent experts to consult with them, to evaluate the protocols in the research,” Egilman said. “The same thing’s true for drug research—if you’re doing corporate-funded pharmaceutical-medical research, there should be an independent group evaluating that research, [but] the norm [today] in drug research is that the data analysis is all controlled by the company.”
Jaye Ellis, a professor of law at McGill, said communication can be difficult between university researchers and corporations because each player has a different understanding of their goals in the research.
“It’s not possible for all of the players in these relationships—the university, administrators, the corporation, the researcher—to be on precisely the same page,” Ellis said. “[We need to] talk about how we present communicative structures among these different players to protect the values that we want to protect—rigorous academic freedom, independence, and so forth.”
McGill has several Research Ethics Boards (REBs) intended to promote ethical standards of research and protect the rights and welfare of individual participants in research projects. Researchers must obtain approval for their project from an REB before they begin recruiting participants or collecting data. However, McGill philosophy professor David Weinstock criticized the way university researchers tend to view Research Ethics Boards.
“[Researchers] still have a vision of REBs that reflects a conception of ethics that is altogether too superficial, too checklist-like, and too much at the tail end [of the process],” Weinstock said. “Everything that we do can be ethics-free until we get to that point when we have to fill out the ethics checklist and at that point all the important decisions have been made. That has to change.”
One potential solution that arose in the discussion was the creation of an additional body concerned with ethics at McGill, which would investigate and follow up on projects after they have received REB approval. According to Weinstock, however, this idea presents logistical difficulties.
“Questions about composition, mandate, independence, [and] the purview become crucial,” he said. “We don’t have the time to do the kind of serious research on the ways in which these details would need to get worked out.”
While Eidelman said he could not comment at this time on how the ideas raised at the conference will be used, he emphasized the potential for improving the university’s ethics review system.
“There is an imperative for the Faculty of Medicine and the university […] to think about how we can make sure that when we’re doing research we’re really meeting the highest standards,” he said.
Ruff said she was sceptical of the effect the conference would have on corporate-funded and asbestos-related research at McGill.
“It’s a good opportunity for the issue to be discussed, but […] the conference is not a substitute for doing the right thing,” Ruff said. “I think that we still have a very serious problem in the way McGill has dealt with this issue of misuse of research and the asbestos industry influence. I don’t think that has been properly addressed.”
McDonald did not attend the conference.
For further detail on the McGill asbestos controversy, read Asbestos at McGill: one year later.
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