Responsible Conduct of Research – More than a concept

Jane Hilton, project manager, Grants & Special Projects

You know what they say about “assumptions” and I’m at fault as I naturally assumed every researcher would conduct their investigations in an ethical and responsible way.  It must have been the morning I was short on caffeine or blinded by the faith. Two examples come to mind that convinced me that everyone has a duty to ensure there is a prevailing culture of research integrity.

One is the highly publicized controversy between Dr. Oliveri, a preeminent researcher in hemoglobinopathy and Apotex, a large pharmaceutical company, which became daily conversation fodder around the water cooler. In 1995, Dr. Oliveri became concerned about the toxicity of the drug she was studying and breached the confidentiality agreement she had signed by informing the participants in the trial about her concerns. In compliance with the instructions from the Research Ethics Board, I might add. She had very little support from the hospital and the university for adhering to the core values of research and academic integrity and paid a hefty price both in terms of loss of job, reputation and legal proceedings.

A few years later in 1998, a paper authored by Dr. Andrew Wakefield was published in a preeminent medical journal, The Lancet, linking the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine to autism. Later, an examination of hospital records discovered that Dr. Wakefield and his colleagues had altered facts about patients, but by then the damage was done. Parents worldwide were rattled and the legacy lives on as immunization rates have never fully recovered.

A retraction by The Lancet was finally published in 2010. Only after years were spent reassessing the scientific methods and discovering that the good doctor had filed for a patent on a single measles vaccine in 1997 which would benefit enormously if the triple vaccine was discredited. This was compounded by the fact Dr. Wakefield was receiving payments from lawyers who were representing parents seeking to sue vaccine manufacturers for damages.

Two respected researchers with very different experiences and perceptions of what constitutes responsible conduct of research. It is cases like these and public pressure to increase transparency that resulted in the government developing a Responsible Conduct of Research framework. In 2011, the three federal agencies (Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council and Canadian Institutes of Health Research) that distribute over $2 billion in research grants annually set out the responsibilities and policies for researchers, institutions and the Tri-Agencies to ensure a viable and positive research environment.  This system wide approach clearly defines the standards and expectations by which all members of the research community should practice. While a shared set of positive values and principles serves proactively as a preventative measure, the framework also includes processes by which to identify and investigate allegations of research misconduct without discouraging novel or innovative research methods. It’s a balancing act but through education and learning, everyone can participate in the thrill of discovery and the hunt for truth.