July 6, 2022

Canadian bioethicists sunk in dejection over government inaction

The bioethics community in Canada is enraged at the Harper Government’s refusal to appoint a strong and formally credentialed leader.

The bioethics community in Canada is enraged at the Harper Government’s refusal to appoint a strong and formally credentialed leader to oversee ethics in the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR).

In a report last year a government-appointed task force reminded the government that “CIHR is obligated legally to ensure that ethics has a central place within the organization. This is not optional; it is legally required.” Subsequently, an open letter to parliamentarians signed by 50 bioethicists and health law experts has demanded “strong leadership” from a person “recognized nationally and internationally as a leading scholar and researcher in ethics”.

It was not to be. Instead the CIHR’s Governing Council snubbed the bioethicists by appointing a so-called “Ethics Champion” in the CIHR. Taking the fall for the Governing Council is Dr Jane Aubin, who is a highly respected expert in medical biophysics. But she had to confess to a hostile audience at the Canadian Bioethics Society Conference in Vancouver that she had no formal qualification in ethics. In the blog Impact Ethics Juliet Guichon, of the University of Calgary, wrote:

“We were all exceedingly polite; yet we were sad. In our respective workplaces, we teach the ethics equivalents of the Empress of Ireland and the Titanic. Obviously, trouble can arise in health research because of lack of understanding or inattention to ethics.

“We didn’t (and still don’t) get it. Why would Ottawa not want a person with ethics expertise at the helm to avoid trouble, and to foster research in best practice? It is false economy to do otherwise, as the cruise industry knows. Should we wait for another Costa Concordia before valuing prevention experts?”  

* The text incorporates a correction to the original version.

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