CIHR’s Decision on “Ethics”: Yet Another Canadian Story

Fern Brunger suggests that the recent CIHR decision to push ethics to the periphery is but one more chapter in a dangerous story.

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Science is embedded in historical, political, and social contexts that influence not only what is researched, but also what counts as appropriate and necessary outcomes of research.  The Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) recent decision to avoid having knowledgeable and independent ethics leadership is not surprising to me. This is yet another Canadian story about the increasing government/industry erosion of independent science.  To be sure, the erosion of independent science is not just an issue for CIHR; but it is deeply embedded in the story of CIHR, and in this most recent chapter we see most clearly how that meta-narrative unfolds.

At its creation in 2000, CIHR was mandated to “enhance economic development in Canada and promote growth and job creation in key sectors of the knowledge-based economy.” By about year three, CIHR was beginning to prioritize funding of research that aimed to produce something immediately applicable and ideally patentable (Investing in Canada’s Future: CIHR’s Blueprint For Health Research and Innovation 2003/04 – 2007/08 ).  The vehicle for promoting this priority was the (relatively) newly coined term “KT” (knowledge transfer) – a clever concept that appears to be about meeting the needs of consumers (term intentional), but in fact ensures that research with an applied and ideally money-generating outcome is (preferentially) funded.

J. E. H. MacDonald, Montreal Falls

J. E. H. MacDonald, Montreal Falls

Later, in 2007, a multi-stakeholder workshop determined that “An ethics policy needs to be written in a way that encourages partnerships and does not inhibit the ability of CIHR and for-profit private sector businesses to build relationships based on mutually beneficial goals.” By 2009, an industry representative was ensconced in CIHR Governing Council, and the five-year strategic plan approved for 2009 – 2014 explicitly aimed to “Accelerate the capture of health and economic benefits of health research” (Health Research Roadmap: Creating Innovative research for better health and health care, CIHR’s Strategic Plan 2009-10 – 2013-14). This goal was subsequently reaffirmed in the 2010-2013 CIHR Three-Year Implementation Plan and Progress Report.

Alongside this storyline of government/industry partnership, runs another story which is the gradual disappearing of ethics leadership at CIHR. On the CIHR Governing Council, academic ethicists were present for the first four years. Following that, physicians with an interest in ethics have represented ethics. For a time, the Ethics Office benefitted from the expertise of Geneviève Dubois-Flynn, an academic ethicist. But, the Office had been in limbo for some time with Dubois-Flynn “holding the fort” as Acting Director up until 2011, shortly before the position was terminated.

There are multiple ways that industry and science intersect (here and here). A relationship between the two is neither straightforward, nor unilaterally wrong. A strong ethics presence that can serve as a watchdog is key. Given that CIHR seems to want a cozy relationship with industry, and given that CIHR’s Governing Council has, with increasing explicitness, emphasized the importance of government/industry partnership, there were two possible responses to the recent Task Force on Ethics Reform recommendation “to create a position of Vice President of Ethics (VP Ethics) or a position of equivalent stature, and then hiring a strong individual to fill that role”.

One option was to endorse the Task Force recommendation and ensure knowledgeable and independent ethics leadership by a person with the ability to thoroughly understand and navigate the complex relationship between industry and science. As appropriate, this person would be able to offer a critical perspective on government/industry partnership (without alienating government or industry purse-string holders). A second option was to set aside the Task Force recommendation and take a much easier route that would not include having knowledgeable and independent ethics leadership. In this way, the Standing Committee on Ethics, no matter how knowledgeable and independent it might be, would not be able to disturb the relationship between government and industry partners.

What is happening to ethics at CIHR is not just about the Canadian Institutes of Health Research; it is the story of Canada.
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Disclosure:  In 2011, I was offered the position as Ethics Officer and, after much negotiation, chose to decline. I was informed that I would not be able to continue my (CIHR-funded) research while holding the Ethics Officer position. My perspective was that (1) the position should be held by an academic ethicist with an active program of research; and (2) it would be unethical for me to breach my contract with my Indigenous community partners, according to the principles outlined in CIHR’s own guidelines for research involving Indigenous communities. There was no room for accommodation, therefore, I declined the position.  Given that the Ethics Officer position was soon to be terminated, clearly this was a sound decision.

Fern Brunger is Associate Professor of Health Care Ethics at Memorial University of Newfoundland.

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