The National Health and Medical Research Council announced this week that it had no authority to examine a complaint against the research ethics of a well-known anti-wind farm protester.
Back in April Crikey revealed that the council was looking into a complaint against Sarah Laurie, the CEO of the small-but-powerful anti-wind farm Waubra Foundation, after an anonymous document claimed Laurie had breached ethical codes of research conduct.
Laurie is not currently registered as a medical practitioner (she used to be a general practitioner), but the document alleged she had been conducting activity for the Waubra Foundation that met the definition of medical research with human subjects. Laurie’s activity centred around claims that wind farms can have hazardous medical side effects.
Professor Warwick Anderson, the chief executive of the NHMRC, released a statement yesterday explaining that since Laurie and Waubra do not receive federal funding, the NHMRC had no authority to investigate the claims.
“I have today advised all relevant parties that NHMRC will take no further action in relation to these allegations. Neither Dr Laurie, nor the Waubra Foundation, has contractual arrangements through a signed NHMRC Funding Agreement. Therefore, there is no remit for NHMRC to act.”
Anderson noted in his statement the event had raised additional questions related to the NHMRC’s role:
“These recent events have, however, raised important issues for me as the CEO and NHMRC. Accordingly, I have asked the Australian Health Ethics Committee to advise me, as soon as possible, on the current requirements of the National Statement and the broader implications relating to research being conducted without ethical approval and any advice I may be able to provide to governments.”
The original concerns about the ethics surrounding Laurie’s research were outlined in a document written by anonymous academics and sent to the Public Health Association Australia, whose CEO, Michael Moore, forwarded the complaint to the NHMRC and other medical bodies.
Moore said he had received a letter very similar to the statement released by the NHMRC on its website.
“I’m disappointed that the NMHRC doesn’t have the power at the very least to provide strong advice on the ethical conduct of medical research,” Moore told Crikey. ”The letter from NMHRC did include advice that the complaint could be dealt with by the Victorian Health Complaints Commissioner, so I have forwarded the information to them, along with a copy to the Waubra Foundation.”
The dossier outlines the incidents where Laurie claims to have conducted interviews with residents affected by wind turbine health issues, collected blood pressure data, given medical advice and/or clinical judgment, referred to people as “research subjects” and discussed accessing medical records and personal health journals.
“I have no idea of her capacity as a medical practitioner, she may be a great doctor,” said Moore. ”Our concerns are about the ethics of health and medical research. In the last couple of decades ethical practice in medical research in Australia has moved in to a new era, a much more responsible era, and we certainly shouldn’t be going backwards.”
Liberal MP Alby Schultz recently defended Laurie against the ethical allegations in Parliament, with a scathing attack against Moore and Professor Simon Chapman (a well-known public health academic, whom Schultz accuses of writing the anonymous document), accusing them (and alsoCrikey) of being involved in “a significant orchestrated attempt to assassinate her [Laurie’s] outstanding reputation and undeniable credibility”.
Schultz declared in Parliament on May 30:
“This outrageous document was clearly provided for no other reason than a further seedy attempt to assassinate the good standing and character of Dr Sarah Laurie. These allegations will be proven baseless and defamatory; the so-called ‘anonymous’ author of the complaint knows this, as does Mr Michael Moore, otherwise why is the complaint anonymous? As they will be proven baseless, the author would be exposed for what he truly is, and face potential criminal defamation charges. Does anyone truly believe that a genuinely anonymous letter of complaint would be referred from a trusted association and then, astonishingly, receive attention from relevant bodies if the anonymous person were not well known to them?”
But Chapman told Crikey he wasn’t the author of the document. “Regrettably, I didn’t write the dossier, or conceive of what I think is a very important issue and dossier of examples from Laurie’s own public statements. I wish I had,” he told Crikey. He did see drafts as it was being produced but says he respects the author’s wishes to remain anonymous.
When contacted by Crikey for her response to the NHMRC news, Laurie pointed us in the direction of various health reports that discuss wind turbine syndrome. She also criticised the NHMRC’s 2010 rapid review into wind turbine and health, noting that “the NHMRC needs to carefully reflect on the ethical issues which arise from its issuing of a flawed document”.
“The wisdom of choosing two people who have since been shown to be strong advocates for wind power as the peer reviewers of that document, and then not disclosing their identities until senators in Federal Parliament insisted that they did so, raise issues of governance at a senior level within the NHMRC, particularly around conflict of interest issues and appropriate technical expertise of peer reviewers. Neither of them was trained in any branch of clinical medicine. The author(s) of this 2010 NHMRC report and their professional and educational background is still unknown, as is any conflict of interest they might have had.”
Chapman was one of the peer reviewers of the rapid review document. Laurie did not respond to questions about her own medical research or reaction to the NHMRC actions this week.