Research policy still in flux

New policy is too vague on ethics, according to student representatives
By Stephanie Law

February 11, 2010, The McGill Daily

The absence of restrictions on potentially harmful research in the new Regulations on Conduct of Research policy continued to raise concerns in Senate on Wednesday.

The new policy was originally up for approval at Wednesday’s Senate meeting, but due to an administrative oversight, the policy was only briefly discussed. McGill Vice-Principal (Research and International Relations) Denis Thérien explained that the Academic Policy Committee must approve the policy before it is brought to Senate, which had not been done yet.

“I think it’s unfortunate because…the policy is ready to be adopted right now and every month that goes by without having a document like this is dangerous [and] is not good for the University. We need this to come in force as soon as possible,” Thérien said.

There was a general consensus among the administration and senators that the new policy adequately addresses the problems that arose when the first draft was brought to Senate in November.

“The removal of the clause on anonymity as well as the addition of [the reference to] social responsibility into the preamble is definitely an improvement on the document that was previously brought up,” Rebecca Dooley, SSMU VP (University Affairs), said. “[The new policy does] address some of the concerns that were brought forward by students [at the last Senate].”

During Senate discussions on the policy, Sarah Woolf, SSMU Arts senator, pointed out that the new policy will be replacing the Policy on Research Ethics and the Regulations on Research Policy, and therefore should include more specifications on ethical standards.

“The policy does refer to a research ethics board. However, to the best of my knowledge, the board is generally concerned with the welfare to the immediate human or animal subjects, rather than the potential societal and ethical outcomes of research,” Woolf said. “Despite the extent of the articulation of ethics, the revised version of the policy does not provide guidance to what this ethical standard might be.”

Thérien and others on the team that is drafting the new policy did not address Woolf’s concerns.

Richard Janda, Faculty of Law senator and law professor, also believes the policy still needs to be strengthened in order to prevent potentially harmful applications of research conducted at McGill.

“Just as we have ethical review of research on human subjects…I think that we can ask those kinds of questions [for any research]. Particularly, I believe we should ask those kinds of questions when the sources of money that are being given for research are not peer-reviewed granting councils,” Janda said.

Prior to the Senate meeting, the new policy was reviewed and discussed at the Research Advisory Council (RAC), which was formerly the Research Policy Committee. The RAC is composed of representatives from all faculties, associate deans, representatives from Thérien’s office, and student representatives.

According to a post-doctoral representative in the RAC, who wished to remain anonymous, the RAC attempted to develop a clause to regulate research with potentially harmful applications. “There was an effort made by a number of committee members to come up with a better clause. But in the time we had, we couldn’t come up with better wording,” she said.

The post-doctoral representative was disappointed that they did not have sufficient time to discuss and develop an appropriate clause. She felt that the representatives from Thérien’s office had a strong influence in the discussion and had clearly set objectives.

Cleve Higgins, organizer with Demilitarize McGill, argued that in fact, having these regulations in place are in the interest of McGill and its administration.

“I think it is important for McGill to institutionally deal with this issue, and in that way there doesn’t need to be a campaign against the University or against the researcher every time the research is connected to harmful application,” said Higgins.

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