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March 30, 1995

Responding to Fisher's complaints, Senate Council reaffirms policy on externally funded research

Following in the footsteps of Faculty Assembly (University Times, March 16), Senate Council at its March 20 meeting approved a resolution reaffirming Pitt's policy on externally funded research.

The resolution calls on the administration to work through the American Association of Universities and the political system to support academic freedom at Pitt and all other universities.

Drafted by the University Senate's tenure and academic freedom committee, the resolution is a response to allegations by Pitt cancer researcher Bernard Fisher that the University violated his academic freedom. Fisher has claimed that his right to publish his research results was violated when Pitt agreed, without consulting him, to a National Cancer Institute (NCI) demand that all National Surgical Adjuvant Breast and Bowel Project (NSABP) manuscripts be submitted to NCI for approval before submission to any publication.

Fisher was forced out last year as head of the Pitt-based NSABP following disclosure that a Montreal surgeon had submitted falsified data to NSABP studies.

NCI officials criticized Fisher and his staff for carelessness in the case, but they did not find him guilty of scientific misconduct.

The Senate Council resolution was immediately criticized by Senior Vice Chancellor of Health Sciences Thomas Detre as unnecessary. Detre pointed out that the resolution does nothing more than reiterate current University policy.

Detre also complained that neither the administration nor the University's general counsel had been consulted about the issues surrounding the resolution.

"We are always told when we [the administration] slip up, but when it comes to an issue or a complaint the faculty tends to march and the proper University officials are never consulted to present their point of view," he said.

Allegations that Pitt simply gave in to the NCI's demands are incorrect, Detre said.

University General Counsel Lewis Popper supported Detre's claim by noting that Ronald Herberman, principle investigator NSABP's biostatistical center and director of the Pittsburgh Cancer Institute, and others had complained in writing to the NCI that its request was an undue restraint.

Popper said the NCI replied that the action was only temporary. It stated that it was not going to edit the manuscripts, but only wanted to make sure there was no fraudulent data in the material. According to Popper, the action was only in force while the NSABP was on probation and the NCI was conducting its investigation.

"We didn't like it," Popper said. "We protested it, but this was a time when their investigators were all over the campus and various authorities and press all over the country were looking at the issue. The only option at that point was to sue the NCI about First Amendment restraint. That took a backseat." According to Popper, the University was just getting to the point of raising the issue with to NCI again when Fisher sued the University and raised the issue in his suit.

Even after Fisher filed his suit, Popper continued to discuss the problems of academic freedom with the NCI. In January, Popper wrote to NCI informing it that Pitt was not going to submit manuscripts for its approval prior to publication.

When NCI failed to reply to his first letter, Popper said he wrote another letter that brought up First Amendment rights and again stated that the University would not seek NCI's approval before submitting NSABP manuscripts for publication.

"That's the last word," Popper added. "The last word is that we, the NSABP and all of its researchers, are not complying with the NCI dictum. And apparently, as of today, they are not going to take severe action and we don't need to sue them to get out from under that oppressive standard." To Detre's complaint that input on the issue was not sought from the administration or University counsel, Senate Council President James Holland noted that while he had not personally spoken with Popper, he had seen a letter that Popper had written on the issue. He added, though, that it was a mystery to him why the issue had become a legal question.

"It's a matter of University policy," Holland said. "Maybe there are others I should have talked with or somebody from TAF (tenure and academic freedom committee) should have talked with, but University counsel would not have been my first thought." Detre complained that Holland still should have contacted the Office of Research, the provost or the Office of the Senior Vice Chancellor of Health Sciences about the issue. "You consulted nobody," Detre said. "You came to this view that the policy has to be reaffirmed because it has been violated. But, on the other hand, nobody was asked to present the other side." Council member Carey Balaban defended the resolution by noting it does not allege that University policy has been violated. While acknowledging that some people may view the resolution as an allegation that the policy had been violated, Balaban said the resolution merely reiterates what the policy says.

Detre countered by saying the resolution is "a perfect way of rumor mongering. I could not imagine a better way because the innuendo is that the policy has to be reaffirmed because something went wrong." In other business, Senate Council approved a resolution calling for enforcement of the existing faculty review process. The resolution was approved by Faculty Assembly at its March 14 meeting.

"What we've done is basically to suggest that the policy we have in place, as articulated in the [Faculty] Handbook, with some minor modification, fits what we think is an appropriate way to conduct annual reviews at the University of Pittsburgh," said Glenn Nelson, chairperson of the ad hoc committee on post tenure review.

Holland said that both Provost Maher and the Council of Deans view the resolution favorably.

–Mike Sajna

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