Some U of S senators call for investigation into prof's links to 3M corporation

Some members of the University of Saskatchewan’s governing bodies are calling for an investigation after a professor was accused of suppressing toxic pollution research for U.S. corporation 3M.

Critics say case is proof U of S needs stronger conflict of interest laws

Some say the University of Saskatchewan needs to strengthen its conflict of interest rules following questions about a professor's relationship with American corporation 3M. (CBC)

Some members of the University of Saskatchewan's governing bodies are calling for an investigation after a professor was accused of suppressing toxic pollution research for U.S. corporation 3M.

U of S administrators say no investigation is needed because the allegations against renowned toxicologist John Giesy are unproven and Giesy denies the claims.

Some members of the university's senate and its faculty council, meanwhile, say that's not good enough.

They say it's another example of the university's lax attitude and rules around conflict of interest and corporate relationships. They say they'll be pressing administrators on the matter at the council meeting Thursday and a senate gathering next month.

It's totally the opposite of what the university should stand for.- Jim Pulford, U of S senator

U of S senator and lawyer Rae Mitten said the university has become too obsessed with status and funding, and that makes it tempting to overlook ethically questionable research or behaviour.

"I think they're desperate for, you know, publications, because they're so low on the national and international rating. They're desperate for any of these things and they would take shortcuts they shouldn't be taking," Mitten said in an interview with CBC News.

Fellow senator Jim Pulford agreed. He said he's been working for years to strengthen U of S policies without success. He said corporate donors and funding agencies are increasingly "calling the shots."

"It's totally the opposite of what the university should stand for," Pulford said.

U of S administrators defend prof.

The allegations against Giesy are contained in a lawsuit between the state of Minnesota and 3M, maker of Scotchgard and Scotch Tape.

The state alleged 3M knowingly polluted the environment and caused health problems in Minnesota by the release of chemicals known as perflourinated compounds. Giesy and other PFC experts were recruited and paid by 3M to suppress negative research and promote the interests of 3M, stated some documents submitted to the court. It quoted Giesy's emails to 3M employees about ensuring there was "no paper trail" to 3M for certain payments.

3M denied the claims, saying the concentrations of PFCs were too small to cause harm, and the company phased them out several years ago.

The case was settled last month when 3M agreed to pay the state $850 million. The settlement did not include admission of liability. Giesy was not a party to the lawsuit.

There should of course be no rush to judgment here, but the matter cannot be brushed under the carpet either.- Len Findlay, U of S council member

In a series of emails last week, U of S administrators defended Giesy, saying he's one of the world's top scientists in this field, and has devoted his career to public education and the environment. Giesy is a Canada Research Chair and one of only 29 U of S faculty to be named to the Royal Society of Canada since 1950.

In a statement Monday, they said the U of S associate vice-president of research, Kevin Schneider conducted a preliminary review of the evidence when they became aware of the allegations in February. They concluded there was no breach of U of S ethical codes. Since the allegations pertained to work "conducted or initiated" before Giesy joined the U of S in 2006, they sent a letter to his last workplace, Michigan State University.

They said no further investigation is needed because the allegations are unproven.

They said governments "expect and encourage" universities to engage in research partnerships with industry.

The U of S has created rules "to ensure that academic freedom is maintained in research contracts with third parties and that corporations cannot interfere with the interpretation or publication of research results."

A conflict of interest session is planned for the April 21 senate meeting, according to the statement.

Ethics expert calls university's stance 'mind-boggling'

Ryerson University ethics professor Chris MacDonald said the internal emails between Giesy and 3M appeared to be a "smoking gun," while University of Manitoba ethics expert Arthur Schafer called the U of S position "mind-boggling."

U of S council member Len Findlay said he plans to raise the issue at council Thursday, and expects others will as well.

"There should of course be no rush to judgment here, but the matter cannot be brushed under the carpet either. This … is all about the public's right to know and about the U of S being seen as acting in the public interest," said Findlay.

About the Author

Jason Warick

Reporter

Jason Warick is a reporter with CBC Saskatoon.