By Allan Woods
University scientists and researchers are being forced to compromise their ethics because of the competition for cash from corporate sponsors rather than being able to rely on government funds, warned a University of Manitoba professor speaking at Ryerson last Friday.
Arthur Shafer, a philosophy professor and director of the centre for professional and applied ethics at U of M, said universities and other public institutions have been suffering for the past 20 years because of cuts to government funding.
“Every scientist, every researcher in [the western world] today is in a conflict of interest,” Schafer said at a workshop on research ethics hosted by Ryerson’s philosophy department.
Schafer said this is a crisis that must be addressed to protect society.
Schafer said universities have a long history as a public forum for information, citing the Internet as an example of a tool that was developed as a research project out of the need to pass information amongst academics.
Many important drugs were developed the same way, he said.
The workshop feature a lecture by Dr. Nancy Olivieri, a University of Toronto researcher and hematologist at the Hospital for Sick Children who was at the centre of a dispute with Canadian drug company Apotex.
Olivieri, who was heading a study on one of the company’s experimental drugs used to treat a rare genetic blood disorder, declared deferiprone, unsafe and ineffective.
“A hospital exists to protect patients. A university exists to protect free thought,” Olivieri said. “[But] both the hospital and the university did nothing. In times of great moral crisis, they maintained their neutrality.”
Olivieri was under contract with the drug company when she made her conclusions ad had also signed a confidentiality agreement.
Faced with a lawsuit, she published her findings on deferiprone in 1998 in the New England Journal of Medicine.
Olivieri filed a grievance with the university in 1998, alleging the academic freedom of her research team was breached because the university failed to support her when Apotex tried to prevent her from publishing her findings.
U of T was further scandalized when it was revealed that then-president Robert Pritchard had lobbied the federal government on the Apotex’s behalf in exchange for a $25 to $50-million donation to the university.
Olivieri also told a story about Ryerson’s chair of communications ethics, Peter Desbarats, who in 1995, while he was chair of the University of Western Ontario’s journalism school, said he couldn’t comment on Rogers Communications’ controversial takeover of Maclean Hunter because Rogers had donated $1-million to the school.
“To buy universities is to destroy them and the civilization in which they exist,” Olivieri said.