(WASHINGTON, Sept. 15) — A Harvard Medical School professor recently cleared by a Harvard ethics panel of charges that he suppressed critical research findings made a million dollar contribution to the University’s Dental School.
The contribution—one of just six million dollar gifts that helped create the Dental School’s new research building—is not in and of itself improper, but it raises questions about the willingness of the University to censure the donor, Dr. Chester Douglass, chairman of the Dental School’s Oral Health Policy & Epidemiology Department.
The donation revelation comes in the wake of the University’s refusal to release the report of its own ethics committee that exonerated Douglass of the charges, brought by the Environmental Working Group, that he suppressed research findings on the link between fluoride and bone cancer in boys in his reporting to the National Research Council and National Institutes of Health. The secret investigation that cleared Douglass also found that he had not violated conflict of interest rules in his dual roles as fluoride cancer researcher and employee of the Colgate toothpaste company. Colgate is a leading advocate of fluoride. Douglass edits the company’s journal, “The Oral Care Report.”
“We’re not sure which is wackier, the politics of fluoride, or ethics standards at Harvard,” said Richard Wiles, Sr. Vice President of Environmental Working Group. “There is nothing wrong with donating a million dollars to your employer, but it does create a potentially serious conflict of interest when the recipient of the million dollars is investigating the ethics of the donor,” Wiles added.
After a year-long investigation into Douglass’s conduct, Harvard issued a four-paragraph statement concluding that Douglass “did not intentionally omit, misrepresent, or suppress research findings,” but the panel did not release its report on the matter, nor did it invite any outside testimony during its review.
Over a dozen Harvard alumni, including several leading public health experts, have expressed serious concerns to new Harvard President Derek Bok about the cloak of secrecy surrounding the University’s ethics inquiry.
The University responded to these inquiries with a five-paragraph letter that did not address the request for the ethics report and other documents related to the ethics review.
Dr. David Egilman, an alumnus of the Harvard School of Public Health, said, “While I was disturbed to read the well-documented ethics charges against Douglass, I was even more disturbed to read Harvard’s very brief, and completely inadequate, response on August 15, 2006.”
Harvard alumnus and member of the Board of Directors for the Journal of Public Health Policy, Dr. Peter Orris, wrote President Bok: “I am hopeful that your new administration would take action here to assure this needed transparency in executing its obligations to the Harvard Community and more broadly the public as a whole.”
Michael Connett of Fluoride Action Network said, “Harvard owes the public—which funds Harvard’s research on fluoride and bone cancer—a thorough explanation of how Professor Douglass’ misrepresentation of his data, did not violate university and federal guidelines.”