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CAUT Bulletin Archives

June 1999

Brown University Protects Company, Fires Researcher

Delegates at the "Academic Values in the Transformation of American Medicine" conference sponsored by the American Association of University Professors last month in Boston grappled with the latest developments in the scandal at Brown University and the case of David Kern. Like the Nancy Olivieri case closer to home, Kern is an American casualty in the fight for research integrity.

Dr. Kern is currently director of the program in occupational medicine at Brown University, and founding director of the occupational and environmental health service at Memorial Hospital of Rhode Island, which is affiliated with the university. His trouble began in 1994 when a textile worker with a curious lung ailment was referred to him by a private practitioner. Kern received permission from the textile company, Microfibres, Inc., for a work site visit and was asked to sign an "Agreement of Secrecy and Confidentiality" which prevented him and his associates from disclosing "trade secrets" and "such secret process steps and the methods and apparatus with which they are performed, the materials used and the products produced."

More than a year later another Microfibres worker was referred to him. The company asked for his assistance and Kern in turn asked for the cooperation of all parties -- management, workers and the union. Throughout 1996 eight cases of the previously unknown lung disease were discovered in the study led by Kern. His team interviewed 165 current and former workers, performed X-rays, lung function tests, and biopsies of lung tissue on the road to discovery of the new disease, "flock worker's lung."

When Kern provided Microfibres with a draft of a report describing the clinical dimensions of the outbreak which he was planning to present at a conference of the American Thoracic Society the company threatened legal action. Kern offered to withhold publication and delete certain material if the company would fully cooperate in the collaborative investigation. When the company refused, Kern terminated the consultative relationship.

Memorial Hospital, Kern's employer, then demanded he not submit his findings to the medical conference on the grounds that he had offended the company, and furthermore signed a confidentiality agreement. In response, Kern stated that "the company's secrecy agreement had little if any relevance to the current situation and that, moreover, it should not be allowed to deter us from our professional responsibilities." He also noted that Microfibres, Inc. was a donor to the hospital and that several members of the company owner's family serve as members of the Memorial Hospital Corporation.

When Kern appealed to his dean at the medical school, a committee of inquiry was convened. Although the committee found that Kern's academic freedom had indeed been violated, it concluded the company's motive was merely "to avoid bad publicity and to protect its economic position." The university stated it had to take a "risk-averse stance" in all such matters.

On May 21, 1997, Kern presented his findings to the American Thoracic Society. In its proceedings the society stated that: "Barriers to the open communication of scientific information must be resisted. In particular, the threat of litigation and/or elimination of financial support to prevent the open communication of scientific information is abhorrent." One week later Kern received letters from Memorial Hospital President Frank Dietz and Brown University President Vartan Gregorian informing him that his five-year contract of employment would not be renewed when it expired on June 30, 1999.

"The tragic case of Dr. Kern is similar in many ways to the well-known case of Dr. Nancy Olivieri," CAUT President Bill Graham told a press conference and information meeting held during the AAUP conference."In each case both the hospital and the university in question failed to support their faculty member in the face of threats and pressures from a private corporation."

Many groups and individuals, including Canadian Nobel Laureate John Polanyi, have written to the new president of Brown University, Gordon Gee, asking him to reverse the termination of Kern's contract.

President Gee has responded that although he does not see a "productive way in which the case can be reopened," he added that "Brown University's commitment to academic freedom, including the right to publish results of research and other scholarly work, is absolute and unwavering."

Graham disagrees: "A university which spouts the principle of academic freedom but fails to act in defense of academic freedom has lost its soul, has lost its right and privilege to call itself a university, and brings shame upon itself.

"Academic freedom has no borders. Academics and physicians in Canada should write to President Gee and urge him to choose truth to wordsmithing, and the defense of academic freedom and open dissemination of knowledge to the bureaucratically 'safe' policy of risk-aversion."

Write to: Box 1860, Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island 02912-1860.