Canadian University fails to address scientific and ethical misconduct

Fri, Nov 6, 2015


Kathleen Ruff,

Concordia University, one of Canada’s biggest universities and located in Montreal, is refusing to retract a report it funded, commissioned and published, entitled “Lessons from the Quebec Asbestos Industry: Can there be meaningful dialogue and consensus when facts come up against feelings?”.

The report has been condemned by Quebec health experts as shameless and irresponsible for putting forward false information that serves vested interests. The report claims that the scientific evidence supports the use of chrysotile asbestos, that those opposed to asbestos use are just being “emotional”, and that exposure to high levels of chrysotile asbestos fibres causes no harm to health.

Concordia did not disclose that the report was written by an asbestos industry consultant

The report was written by John Aylen, a lecturer at Concordia’s John Molson School of Business. Aylen was a paid consultant and spokesperson for the asbestos industry in its efforts to obtain government funding to re-open the Jeffrey asbestos mine in Quebec, which is the subject of his report. Concordia stated that it commissioned and published the report, and a second one on shale gas, in order  to provide public relations advice to industries, particularly in the energy sector, on how to succeed with  controversial projects in the face of public opposition.

The report on asbestos was published by Concordia on the university’s letterhead as a supposedly independent, reputable report. Concordia did not disclose the fact that the author was a paid consultant for the asbestos industry.

Health experts and human rights advocates made a complaint to Concordia over these violations of academic and ethical standards and called for an independent investigation.

The President of Concordia University, Alan Shepard, refused the request and refused to submit the complaint to Concordia’s Board of Governors. Instead, Shepard asked the Dean of Concordia’s John Molson School of Business to carry out an internal investigation of its own conduct.

In a letter of October 26, 2015, reporting the results of the “investigation”, the President admits that Concordia dealt “inadequately” with the author’s ties to the asbestos industry. Shepard states vaguely that Concordia will review how it handles conflict of interest issues in future. He also states that the report is no longer available on Concordia’s website.

In a letter of November 3, 2015, health and human rights experts condemn Concordia’s investigation as lacking transparency, independence and credibility.

They state: “The token action Concordia has taken to address the wrong-doing we have documented demonstrates, in our opinion, irresponsibility and a lack of ethics. Concordia has taken no action whatsoever to reject the dangerous, false information it has published or to address any of the serious concerns that we raised. …. It is shameful, in our opinion, that Concordia is allowing its reputation to be used to promote false information to help sell asbestos and harm populations overseas.”

The health experts demand that Concordia retract the publication and initiate a credible, independent and transparent investigation. The Concordia Student Union is supporting the call for an independent investigation.

Report praises asbestos industrialist who is a major donor and Governor Emeritus of Concordia University

In today’s La Presse newspaper, a spokesperson for the university admitted that there were problems with Concordia’s failure to disclose the author’s conflict of interest. The spokesperson refused, however, to acknowledge that the report contains false information.

The author of the report, John Aylen, was hired by Baljit Chadha to help Chadha’s company, Balcorp Ltd., obtain funds from the Quebec government to re-open the Jeffrey asbestos mine and export millions of tons of asbestos overseas. Chadha is a major donor to Concordia University, holds the title of Governor Emeritus of Concordia University and has an auditorium at the university named after him.

Aylen effusively praises Chadha in his report (while giving him a false name): “I would like to acknowledge the gracious and generous contributions of Mr. Barry Smith (not his real name) who wholeheartedly endorsed and supported this exercise in a true spirit of constructive analysis and forward sightedness.”

Aylen continues to teach at Concordia’s John Molson School of Business, guiding students on how to practice public relations.

Governments have cut back funding to universities, making them more beholden to vested interests

Education should serve the public interest. Universities should be given proper government funding and be free to carry out independent research and teaching that respects the evidence, and is not influenced and corrupted by vested interests.

Yet we see moves to increase industry influence. The President of Concordia is involved, for example, in an initiative with other Canadian universities to promote closer industry-university ties.

This move towards greater industry influence is disturbing in light of the failure of Concordia, and universities in Canada, to have a system in place to  protect academic independence and integrity.

It is a betrayal of public trust that, in 2015, a Canadian university commissioned and published a report, written by an industry consultant, and had no conflict of interest requirements in place to disclose this fact.

It is a betrayal of public trust that, in 2015, a Canadian university published a report that contains false information; that promotes societal harm;  that praises and serves the interests of an asbestos industrialist, who is a major funder and Governor Emeritus of Concordia; and that was written by the consultant hired by the industrialist.

This sends a powerful message that Concordia does not respect scientific evidence and will provide science for sale.

This represents “A systemic failure of scientific governance”, states British Medical Journal

This represents a serious, systemic failure of scientific governance in Canada, as a scathing editorial by the British Medical Journal has recently pointed out  in condemning similar conduct by Memorial University in Newfoundland. The BMJ calls it shameful that it took 25 years for Memorial University to take action regarding false information in an article published by one of its  academics and to get the article retracted.

What is even more shameful is that, 25 years later, the same failure of scientific governance continues at Canadian universities, as shown by the misconduct of Concordia University.

At a time when Canada and the world urgently need scientific integrity as a foundation for responsible public policy, Canadian universities are failing to defend it.


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2 Responses to “Canadian University fails to address scientific and ethical misconduct”

  1. Elsie Dean Says:

    The news that Concordia University authorities allowed a false ‘so called’ scientific paper that falsifies the truth to be published is shocking. Have our academic institutions sunk so low that money can get them to lie.

  2. Richard Haffey Says:

    One can only hope: (a) that students will see through this veil of deceit, (b) that this deceit will be rejected as an acceptable mode of operation, (c) that Concordia’s acts and denials will create a backlash of disgust and disappointment and (d) the students of today bring into their time as leaders future university environments where integrity and transparency are hallmarks and models for all of society.

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