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Canadian research compromised?

Clinical researcher independence at risk, says a report from a university teachers' group

By | November 24, 2004

A panel of medical experts commissioned by the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) has warned that the integrity and independence of the work done by up to 20,000 clinical faculty and researchers in Canada is at risk, because of outside pressures against which they have few protections. The report, Defending Medicine: Clinical Faculty and Academic Freedom, was released last week and makes a number of key recommendations to better protect the researchers, many of whom are also physicians.

The authors—a medical geneticist from Dalhousie University; the chair of oncology at the University of Alberta; a professor of medicine at McMaster University; another at Queen's University; and the head of child and adolescent psychiatry at the University of British Columbia—said that the work arrangements of clinical faculty differ from those of non-clinical academic staff in a number of important ways and that the differences "can compromise their academic freedom." They concluded that the freedom of clinical faculty to challenge prevailing orthodoxies or criticize decisions in their institutions is vulnerable to pressure from outside interest groups, university administrators, and corporate and government funders.

The panel made several recommendations, including granting clinical faculty the same protections as university professors, such as tenure, secure incomes, and the right to form unions, as well as explicit protection of the academic freedom of clinical faculty "in all institutional mission statements and policy, affiliation agreements, and employment contracts." The panel also called for better access to fair and independent dispute resolution procedures.

"Clinical faculty can't even join a union in Canada, with the exceptions of Quebec and Saskatchewan," James Turk, the executive director of CAUT, told The Scientist. "Threats to the freedom of clinical faculty and researchers are serious. We think it is a pervasive problem. Clinical faculty face a number of choke points where academic freedom can be infringed." With universities and research hospitals increasingly reliant on industry for funds, "there is [also] a growing danger of self-censorship," he said.

The Medical Reform Group of Ontario welcomed the report as a "wakeup call" and agreed with Turk's last point: "Some [universities] are thinking more about corporate relationships than academic freedom," a spokesman told The Scientist.

The spokesman, P.J. Devereaux, said the report was a step in the right direction but cautioned, "These kinds of threats are part of a continuing, moving process. Pressures will persist; people will continue to try to influence researchers."

The report was commissioned after an incident in 1996 when a professor of medicine at the University of Toronto raised concerns about the risks of a new drug she was helping to develop for the treatment of thalassemia. Nancy Oliveri's career was nearly ruined. It later emerged that the University of Toronto had been engaged in negotiations for several multi-million dollar donations with the pharmaceutical company involved. The researcher was finally vindicated in October 2001 after three professors released a 540-page report on her case commissioned by the CAUT.

"The Olivieri case has come to symbolize the precarious nature of academic freedom of clinical faculty," the latest report noted.

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