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Rule Models and Role Models

By Dick Bourgeois-Doyle


Francis Rolleston

As the designers of our government’s policy on science integrity confront the final bumps on the road to a model instrument, they might want to touch base with Dr. Francis Rolleston.

He played a central role in crafting Canada’s original Tri-Council Policy Statement: Integrity in Research and Scholarship and the celebrated Tri-Council Policy Statement: Ethical Conduct for Research Involving Human Subjects: these are the foundational documents for funding university and medical research and models for collaboration between federal agencies in this case the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) and Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC).

Francis has experience that not only includes assembling this set of highly successful words in the integrity realm but also in deploying and selling them. He knows what it was like to live in the absence of accepted, ethical guidelines and what it takes to make them real in the lab and the field.

But the tall, distinguished former scientist and policy maker impresses most with his even longer history and vast credentials as a person who radiates integrity.

I am not alone in being impressed by Dr. Rolleston.

“An outstanding contribution and commitment to enhancing the protection of human research participants and to improving the effectiveness and efficiency of the processes of ethical review of research with humans” reads the citation to the Canadian Association of Research Ethics Board’s (CAREB) President’s Award.

Dr. Rolleston was chosen prodigiously to be its inaugural recipient in 2007.

It surprises few upon meeting Francis that he is an Oxford educated thinker. He earned a DPhil in biochemistry at the ancient institution in 1966 before spending a few years at the University of Chicago and then, happily, moving to Canada to spend a decade in the Faculty of Medicine at UofT. Though he always restrains descriptions of his scientific background, he absorbed a passion for science integrity and ethics during those years in the lab, and this framed his career with the Government of Canada.

That phase of his career began in the 1970s with the management of grants programs for CIHR’s predecessor the Medical Research Council (MRC) and included director-level roles in public affairs, scientific evaluation, international relations, and, of course, science integrity and ethics. He was part of the team that managed the transformation of MRC to CIHR and retired in 2001 as the new agency’s maiden Director of Ethics.

Those years in government included participation in many peer reviews, the development of new programs for clinical science, and the boards of international organizations such as the Human Frontier Science Program. Throughout it all, he advanced the cause of science integrity and the interests of human beings participating either as scientists or as subjects in research.

Though the Tri-Council Policy Statements (since updated and re-framed) did not assume official status until the mid-to-late 1990s), Francis and others were fighting the good fight much earlier. He wrote a report on Ethics in Human Experimentation in his first few years at MRC and even crafted innovative guidelines on ethics in gene therapy in the 1980s.

Again, the word “impressive” comes to mind.

Still, one might argue that all of this flowed from his professional responsibilities and came with the paying job at MRC. Indeed, you can find lots of dedicated science ethics practitioners within the walls of federal offices and labs, and you might suggest that Francis and his cohort just happened along at the point in history when the stars aligned, as today, to make the ethics and integrity of science en vogue.

But I see a distinct glitter in the stardust around Dr. Rolleston.

As one whose career often leaned on the communicative power of words, I have been awed by his ability to package complex science and intricate processes in easy to understand formats. His works include, for example, co-authoring, with the esteemed Dr. Mitch Halperin, an advanced level textbook on biochemistry and physiology entitled Clinical Detective Stories. The book used some fifty vivid and dramatic cases encountered in hospitals and vet clinics to convey complex scientific concepts.

I saw his skill at creative clarity while working in the secretariat that served him during his decade as Chair of the National Research Council (NRC) Research Ethics Board, a role that he assumed after leaving MRC and that he filled with vigor into his seventies. This and other post-retirement work attests to that radiating integrity.

Rather than polishing his laurels, he worked to aftermath them by volunteering and with service on the boards of the Ottawa Hospital ethics board, that of the Canadian Blood Services, CAREB, the Ottawa Science and Technology Ethics Roundtable, and many government advisory committees, regularly in a managing and leadership capacity.

I believe this is the kind of work that separates people like me who can conceive and type collections of words and those who take the next step to make them part of the research reality.

So, I think if the new science integrity policy is to achieve its desired effect, we need such role models as well as rule models, and maybe, we should celebrate them by inaugurating, prodigiously, a Francis Rolleston Award for Science Integrity.

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