Report of the Working Group on Freedom of Research

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There are several sides to scientific freedom: freedom to conduct research, access to the physical tools and contact with other researchers, and freedom to publish and otherwise communicate with the scientific and general public. All of these have been threatened in recent years.

Prior to the recent federal election, many policies of the federal government were of concern: the muzzling of scientists in government programs, closing of some federal labs, and so on. This Working Group, then chaired by Margrit Eichler, was active in exposing the problems. In order to be free of constraints on advocacy, some of the efforts were transferred to a new organization, Our Right to Know, which unlike Science for Peace does not have and does not seek charitable status, hence it is free to devote as large a portion of its effort as desired to public advocacy. Margrit heads the new organization, but she remains an officer of Science for Peace and an active member of this Working Group. Many of the activities of both organizations have been in cooperation with Jim Turk, first in his role as Executive Director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers, and since 2015 as head of the Centre for Free Expression, an activity of Ryerson University. Jim is also active in this Working Group.

We need to still keep watch on federal policy for while the Liberal campaign promises were encouraging, it is by no means assured that: scientists will be free to publish results, earlier cuts in funding will be made good, or the emphases in federal funding on science will be guided by the public good rather than by large corporations. (We recall that NSERC under the previous Liberal governments vaunted joint projects with business.)

Science today is largely distorted by the influence of corporations, whether in the research they directly subsidize or by setting the agenda of universities and of regulatory bodies. Several of us have been working on penetrating the fog of misinformation. In particular, some of us have tried to get more credible appraisals of the health risks from genetic “engineering”, where Philip Regal of our group and others have found regulatory agencies using inadequate methodology to approve release of new strains. Some of us, especially Elia Abi-Jaoude and Harriet Rosenberg, are promoting RIAT, Restoring Invisible and Abandoned Trials, the philosophy of preserving the information obtained in unsuccessful pharmacological research. In particular, Elia co-authored with David Healy and others a painstaking re-evaluation of the original (unpublished) data from a large clinical trial (published, prominently) of an anti-depressant, Paxil. A great deal can be learned from the way in which the original article gave over-optimistic evaluation of both the effectiveness and the safety of the drug, and from the reactions to the Healy team’s critical article.

Such cases illustrate some of the problems which interfere with scientific communication today in such lucrative fields. The individual scientist is under severe financial pressure to bring in, or claim to bring in confirmation of results favouring profitable products; the scientist’s impartiality in examining evidence is compromised by conflicts of interest, in particular in the case of peer review for regulatory bodies or professional journals; journal articles may be written by anonymous employees, so that confidence in them, based on the nominal authors’ qualifications, is misplaced. Perhaps most fundamentally, the selection of the topic of costly large-scale research is biased from the start in favour of the kinds of measures (whether therapies, crops, power sources, or something else) which could be commercialized. Even if the world research effort gave only correct answers to questions, this bias would keep it from serving the world justly, for lack of asking the proper questions.

There is much to learn. Our group welcomes new members, whether people, who are already working on these subjects (there are many more than we are in touch with), or students, or non-specialists.

Chandler Davis is Professor Emeritus of Mathematics at the University of Toronto and former Treasurer of Science for Peace; he can be reached at davis@math.toronto.edu.

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