This:

Professor wants to observe illegal assisted suicides
Academic seeks understanding of the right-to-die movement
Douglas Todd, Vancouver Sun
Published: Thursday, July 03, 2008

Canada’s university professors are preparing to defend the right of a Metro Vancouver researcher to witness illegal assisted suicides in the name of increasing understanding of the right-to-die movement.

The Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) has formed a high-level committee to investigate claims that Kwantlen Polytechnic University sociologist Russel Ogden was unjustly denied the chance to research new techniques for assisted suicide.
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is currently evolving into this:

Kwantlen shuts down controversial research
By Carson Jerema | July 7th, 2008 | 3:01 pm

School remains quiet after CAUT steps in on professors’ behalf

Violations of academic freedom have become something of a cliché. Everything that comes out of the mouth (or pen) of an academic, no matter what the venue, is presumed by some to be protected. Indeed, the concept might appear to a casual observer to be a meaningless convention designed to entrench the scholar as political activist. But, this is not so. Academic freedom provides a very narrow, yet useful function.

The only relevant factor when evaluating scholarly research is whether it contributes to a field in some way, whether it has scientific worth. Academic freedom is simply protection for scholars to do their jobs. It protects the advancement of academic and scientific knowledge, and not the expression of political ideas. The right to political expression is something all in a free society enjoy, and there is nothing special about the professoriate in this matter. Some may disagree, but that is a topic for another day.

Last week, the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) announced that it would be investigating allegations that Kwantlen Polytechnic University violated academic freedom of the kind I am referring to. The charge seems justified, as Kwantlen’s behaviour is rather peculiar….

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Comments

  1. #1 Maria
    July 8, 2008

    I’d love to see Janet’s take on this. I can see why an IRB would have problems with this kind of research.

    The only relevant factor when evaluating scholarly research is whether it contributes to a field in some way, whether it has scientific worth.

    This is not entirely true. Many experiments would give us scientific information but would not be allowed to happen. Informed consent is not necessary from a purely scientific point of view.

    I don’t agree with Kwantlen’s decision, but I see where it comes from.

  2. #2 Greg Laden
    July 8, 2008

    It is not true, as you say, that an IRB evaluation is only about the quality of the research. In fact, the quality of the research is NOT the first consideration with IRB/Human Subjects, in reality.

    In this case, one has to ask if the ickiness factor is simply too much for people to take, and removes any real possibility of objectivity.

  3. #3 Maria
    July 8, 2008

    Wait, I’m not sure what came across from my post. I meant that “scientific worth” is not (and should not) be the only requirement for an IRB to approve a given project. Informed consent would be another. And overall ickiness a third one.

    I would argue, though, that illegal assisted suicide is an important subject that needs to be researched, so that the IRB should think of standards to be met, rather than nix the project altogether.

  4. #4 Greg Laden
    July 8, 2008

    I don’t think we are disagreeing. As a scientist and anthropologist, I think I think this work should be done, though I have no comment on this exact work not knowing the details. As an administrator I would be worried mainly about the legality issue … it is technically illegal to observe something illegal without reporting it, under some circumstances.

  5. #5 bob koepp
    July 8, 2008

    Can academic freedom trump a civic duty to report criminal activity? Framing policies in this area is tricky. What if the illegal activity in question was one that virtually all of us agreed should remain illegal, and warranted strong preventive measures?

  6. #6 Greg Laden
    July 8, 2008

    Cops routinely do not report criminal activity as a matter of procedure.

    Is there a victim in the activity under consideration, such that reporting it would stop it?

    Does the study of the activity have a reasonable chance of diminishing its negative effects?

    Will academics (say, anthropologists) who end up aligning themselves with a particular activity actually take the ultimate actions to reduce the effects or not?

    And so on.

  7. #7 Maria
    July 8, 2008

    Greg,

    Right! I’m pretty sure we agree. That’s why I clarified my original post.

    Bob,

    That’s a good question. I assume Sudhir Ventakesh got IRB authorization for his studies of gangs in Chicago. He got information on their finances that I imagine could only be obtained by assuring confidentiality to his subjects. So he’ll probably be safe from a legal standpoint.

    As for the civic duty, I think it’s an open question. Why assume that it’s better to report these suicides than to understand them? In other words: the civic good may be better served by understanding how and why these things take place, than to report them as soon as you know they’re taking place.

  8. #8 Carson
    July 9, 2008

    “This is not entirely true. Many experiments would give us scientific information but would not be allowed to happen. Informed consent is not necessary from a purely scientific point of view.”

    I wrote the original post that has been partly published here. Thanks for the above comment. I just took the idea of informed consent as a given, and discuss ethics later in the piece. My intent was to contrast scientific value with “ick factors” or political considerations.

    But I was a bit vague on this.

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