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Federal granting agencies get more appointees from outside academe

Outcry over a Pfizer executive appointed to CIHR’s governing body hasn’t echoed with the other granting councils.

BY ROSANNA TAMBURRI | FEB 08 2010

The appointment last fall of Bernard Prigent, a senior executive at Pfizer Canada, to the governing council of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research caused a firestorm of controversy among academics. Many were outraged over the naming of a lobbyist from a pharmaceutical giant to a granting agency charged with the disbursement of public research dollars.

Little mention was made at the time of the considerable number of non-academic appointees who sit on the governing councils of the two other major federal granting agencies, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council.

At SSHRC, nine of its 19 governing council members are from industry and non-profit agencies, up from four in 2000. At NSERC, 10 of its 18 members are non-academic appointees compared to eight in 2000. And NSERC’s council also includes an executive from a pharmaceutical company, albeit a privately-held Canadian firm. At CIHR, by contrast, with 17 council members, Dr. Prigent is the fifth member from outside academe, and most of the others are from public health agencies.

SSHRC president Chad Gaffield said the appointment of non-academics brings diversity to the council and is consistent with good governance practices. It also reflects the growing contribution that SSHRC scholars make to society; businesses and community groups look to social scientists and humanists nowadays for help with research and development, he explained. “Society’s expectations of the social sciences and humanities have increased.”

The trend has caused “some mutterings” among academics, said Noreen Golfman, president of the Canadian Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences and dean of graduate studies at Memorial University. But, for the most part they have accepted it. “Generally the community and the federation think that the appointments are serving us well,” she said.

“These are large councils and you have to trust the good judgment and expertise and integrity of the whole mechanism. One would like to think that no one is going to roll over and let some egregious intervention happen.”

Bryn Williams-Jones, a professor of bioethics at Université de Montréal who writes a blog on conflict-of-interest issues, said the reason there’s been little outcry over the private-sector appointments to SSHRC and NSERC councils is because they include representatives from a range of industries and fund a variety of research. But CIHR almost exclusively funds health research, a field in which the pharmaceutical industry is by far the dominant player, he said.

“It’s not just the fact that [Dr. Prigent] is an industry person; it’s that he’s an industry person from a particular industry,” explained Dr. Williams-Jones. And, he noted, Dr. Prigent is from a particular company within that industry – Pfizer’s U.S. parent has been at the centre of numerous health scandals in recent years. More than 4,000 people, many of them prominent academics including Dr. Williams-Jones, have signed an online petition protesting Dr. Prigent’s appointment.

Governing council appointments are made by the federal cabinet. The three councils have rigorous conflict-of-interest rules and don’t make decisions about grant funding. That is done by peer-review committees. But the governing councils set the agenda and broad strategic vision of the granting agencies.

Even before Dr. Prigent’s appointment, many scholars had voiced concern over the direction in which CIHR as well as NSERC and SSHRC were headed, with increased emphasis on commercialization and on their role in bettering Canada’s economic performance and competitiveness. “We are deeply concerned about what it means to take your research talent and move it in this direction,” said Francoise Baylis, professor of bioethics and philosophy at Dalhousie University and a former CIHR governing council member. Dr. Baylis was vocally opposed to Dr. Prigent’s appointment.

NSERC’s new Strategy for Partnerships and Innovation provides grants to projects that address company-specific problems, and it recently came under fire for similar reasons. The Canadian Association of University Teachers wrote NSERC in November protesting the initiative, calling the move “a result of NSERC’s council now having half of its members from the private sector, many of them not even scientists.”

Rob Annan, who writes the popular Canadian blog Researcher Forum, discussed the uproar when two climate change skeptics were named by orders-in-council to governing bodies: Mark Mullins, former head of the Fraser Institute, was appointed to NSERC’s governing council and John Weissenberger of Husky Energy to the board of the Canada Foundation for Innovation.

Len Findlay, an English professor at the University of Saskatchewan, said that it’s not just one thing; there is a lot going on with the councils that makes academics wary of government: “It seems as though government has amputated that arm that keeps them at arm’s length from the council.”

Dr. Findlay said that it’s not the individual governing council appointees at SSHRC that are worrisome; all of them have impeccable credentials and serve without pay. They also play
an important role in keeping the granting agencies – which together disburse more than $2 billion a year in research dollars – accountable to Canadians.

“But they do set the agenda in terms of the language they employ and issues they identify,” he said. “If you reduce the project to its economic outcome and you try to over-manage those outcomes, you impoverish and indeed imperil the academic enterprise.”

Jim Edwards, a former Conservative Member of Parliament and chair of the NSERC governing council, dismissed such concerns, noting that half of NSERC’s budget funds pure research. But he added that the agency also has a longstanding mandate to foster innovation, a mandate that private-sector representatives help it fulfill.

“I think when the people of Canada through their tax dollars have invested tens of billions of dollars in research grants, it’s probably not inappropriate that there be some statement of national priorities,” he said. “It’s not only appropriate, it’s necessary.”

In his experience, conflicts of interest seldom arise in council discussions. When they do, it is the responsibility of individuals to recuse themselves and the rest of council to police one another, a system that for the most part works well, he said. “We are all volunteers. I think that keeps it pure.”

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