Newspaper article

The U of M Should Thoroughly Investigate Issues in the Markingson Case

Newspaper article

The U of M Should Thoroughly Investigate Issues in the Markingson Case

Article excerpt

In yet another twist to the University of Minnesota's longstanding refusal to investigate alleged research misconduct in the Department of Psychiatry, university officials, instead of asking for a credible inquiry, are soliciting "bids" from prospective contractors interested in reviewing "current policies, practices, and oversight of clinical research on human subjects." This limited review is both absurd and fully consistent with the decade-long refusal by university administrators to promote anything resembling a legitimate inquiry into possible research misconduct involving vulnerable patients with mental illnesses.

The latest episode began in December, when the University of Minnesota Faculty Senate approved a measure titled "Resolution on the matter of the Markingson case." Dan Markingson was an acutely psychotic young man who was recruited into a psychiatric clinical trial while under a civil commitment order. His psychiatrists kept him in the trial despite the desperate pleas of his mother, Mary Weiss. Markingson stayed in the study until he committed suicide by nearly severing his head with a box-cutter.

In the years since then, many critical questions about the circumstances surrounding his death have remained unanswered or contested: whether Markingson was coerced into the trial, whether he was enrolled without having the capacity to provide informed consent, whether he was given inadequate care by psychiatrists with significant financial conflicts of interest, and whether his privacy rights were violated.

Last fall, a group of 181 professors from outside the university wrote to the Faculty Senate, asking it to endorse an investigation of the circumstances surrounding Markingson's death. The Senate passed a resolution by a vote of 67 to 23; its preamble noted the reputational harm the university has suffered "in consequence of this tragic case and its aftermath," as well as the many unanswered questions raised by Markingson's death.

Still, university officials continue to dodge a legitimate inquiry. Instead of asking for an investigation by a panel of independent experts in research ethics or a law-enforcement body, university officials have posted a request for proposal (RFP) to the MBid System on the university's Purchasing Services website. This is the website ordinarily used to solicit bids for services such as furniture reupholstery contracts and laboratory supplies. Unless the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues routinely trolls for contracts on the MBid website, it is unlikely that the kind of organization that registers with MBid is going to have the expertise, credibility, investigative powers, and forensic skills needed to conduct a thorough investigation of possible psychiatric research misconduct.

The wrong mandate

Even if a credible body with relevant expertise receives the contract, it is being given the wrong mandate. According to the RFP:

The intent of this review is to ensure that the University's processes for clinical research on human subjects meet or surpass the established best practices and norms and to instill confidence among faculty and the public that the University of Minnesota research is beyond reproach. It is to be forward looking, productive, transparent and independent review of current practice by an external expert panel.

Setting aside the suggestion that the primary mandate of the contractor is to engage in a public-relations exercise for the university by "instilling confidence" that research conducted at the University of Minnesota is "beyond reproach," the emphasis on being "forward looking" while examining only "current" policies, practices, and oversight of clinical research is profoundly disturbing. …

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