Monday, 22 July 2013
Unethical research - Can we learn today from what went wrong in yesteryears?
It reads like the Nazi cold water exposure experiments on prisoners in the second World War. Canadian Aboriginal Children subjected to nutritional experimentation because of their state of malnourishment. A propagation of wrongs against Aboriginal peoples that is unacceptable and should never have happened. But it did, and it has taken 70 years for such work to be uncovered. There will be more to this story, just as we have learned from those peoples that are finally being given voice to discuss the horrors of residential schools and Indian hospitals. Toronto Star article
Wearing the lenses of historical knowledge puts real context to ethical decisions making regarding research. In this case the subjects were already undernourished as a result of archaic and embarrassing Canadian policy towards First Nations peoples. The outcomes were an understanding of nutritional diseases that today may in some part form the basis of nutritional policy. Science works in unusual and sometimes unacceptable ways.
Canadian research has only gone through a renaissance in reviewing its ethical requirements with the establishment of the Tricouncil Policy on Ethical Conduct for Research Involving Humans, the second edition of which was released in 2010, the first edition was only released in 1998. The history and products of the Canadian panel is well worth reading and should be mandatory requirements for researchers and new graduates – this has happened in some universities already where documentation of successful completion of the tutorial is a requirement. http://www.ethics.gc.ca/eng/index/
Fast forward into the future and imagine yourself fifty years from now looking back. Can you begin to see where current research efforts might just be perceived as unacceptably unethical? Corporate sponsored research into promoting unhealthy lifestyles. Government censorship of researchers findings. Directed research funding that ignores more important health issues. Funding of drugs and devices that might subsequently be found to be health compromising (eg thalidomide).
There is no excuse for the distasteful experimentation that was undertaken in northern Manitoba and likely in other areas of Canada. No amount of apology will suffice. But as we look around at current unacceptable practices towards refugees in Canada, towards racial tensions in the US, towards religious conflicts that defy any religious doctrine, etc. one can only imagine how we will be judged by our great grandchildren for the atrocities that perhaps we are performing today.