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CAUT Bulletin Archives

December 2001

Olivieri Report Deemed One-Sided, Anti-Business

CAUT recently published the report of the committee of inquiry into the case of Dr. Nancy Olivieri, the University of Toronto researcher who has been in an ongoing conflict with the pharmaceutical company Apotex.

Although the report is lengthy, the committee of inquiry fails to tackle the central ethical problem in the case.

Ethics is the study of moral choice. Specifically, ethics is the field that helps one deal with ambiguity and conflicting interests on the way to making a moral decision. Ethics is not merely about doing good. A question such as, "Should I feed my children?" does not raise ethical issues because there is only one logical answer. The question, "Should I steal to feed my children?" is a difficult ethical issue because the question begs other questions: steal from whom? — other families? — the King's forest? The answer to the question will depend on the details of the conflicting responsibilities.

The report merely crafts a lengthy defense of Dr. Olivieri, and a lengthy criticism of Dr. Gideon Koren (her colleague at U of T), Dr. Michael Spino (also a colleague of Dr. Olivieri and a representative of Apotex) and Apotex.

Not once does the report attempt to sift through the interlocking responsibilities and interests of the many parties involved. It fails completely to discuss the fact that Dr. Olivieri seems not to have understood her multiple and possibly conflicting obligations. As such, the report offers no real help to other academics in similar situations.

Here is one quote from the report: "Had Dr. Olivieri acceded to Apotex's proposal, she would not have been informing the REB of a risk to patients that she had identified as a result of her analysis of the data. In such an event, she would not have fulfilled her ethical obligation to patients in the trial."

This statement focuses on a single issue — Dr. Olivieri's obligations to patients. She also had obligations to her colleagues, to act in concert. She had legal obligations to Apotex. Her colleagues also had obligations to the patients. Her colleagues had obligations to Apotex, both legal and professional.

Having read and reread the report, I have the impression Dr. Olivieri gave Dr. Koren and Dr. Spino an ultimatum. Rather than recognizing she had a responsibility to act in concert, as well as a responsibility to patients, she took on the "my way or the highway" attitude. She should have worked much harder at trying to see the merits of her colleagues' views and convincing them of her case. She acted as if she had no respect for her professional colleagues, and cared little for their views or the harm her unilateral actions would cause. The report is ultimately an attempt to justify that bull-headed behaviour.

Dr. Olivieri is not atypical in academic circles. Egos are huge and many academics feel they alone know the truth. This has and will continue to create serious difficulties in contractual relationships.

Universities need to build links with business, government and many organizations in society. Most often, these relationships will be enabled by some form of agreement, contract or letter of intent. Academics need to understand and deal with the potential conflicts that such arrangements bring. CAUT's committee of inquiry wishes to shelter academics within the ivory pure university, thus protecting them from "increased pressures on universities," and allowing them to behave like spoiled brats.

I wonder why the committee had such a blind spot when it came to Dr. Olivieri's professional and contractual responsibilities to a colleague at Apotex. I suspect the blind spot results from a belief that corporations are bad. Many CAUT positions appear to start from this premise. In a CAUT Commentary from May 99, we read "corporate partnerships are threatening accessibility, academic freedom, university autonomy and research integrity." It is plain CAUT, like many academics, distrusts business.

A lack of respect and understanding of the views and interests of partner organizations can only lead to conflict. The Olivieri report has just added a few more bricks to the ivory tower.

This report will be widely discussed. Some of its suggestions will likely be implemented. Under the guise of protecting academic freedom, it will make contractual agreements with businesses more difficult. My ability to enter freely into legal arrangements with potential sponsors will be compromised, resulting in a loss of my real academic freedom. Does CAUT actually care about academic freedom? I don't think so.

Claude Daley
Engineering & Applied Science, Memorial University of Newfoundland