M A I N   N E W S

Whistle-blower Indian scientist sacked,
then praised by PM
Gobind Thukral writes from Toronto

It may look strange, a bit bizarre too. But this is what happened to an India-born scientist who served with dedication, Health Canada for 35 years. Shiv Chopra and two other scientists, Margaret Hayden and Gerard Lambert, were sacked as they opposed the approval of certain drugs which they found not up to the standards. Their fault was they were serious about health safety and did not oblige their seniors who were clearly under pressure from the powerful drug lobby. And, to top it all, they openly spoke about it. They paid the price which whistle blowers pay all across the world.

These scientists had gone public with allegations that the superiors wanted them to approve the use of some antibiotic and hormone medicines. They used pressure tactics to make them approve the substandard drugs.

But three weeks after the sack from his position, Shiv Chopra received a surprise packet. It contained a glowing letter, praising his 35-year dedicated services to Health Canada. “Your years of service have not gone unnoticed and you have earned ... praise and respect. Please accept this special tribute as we honour you and your career. It’s an acknowledgement of our sincere appreciation.” Deputy Health Minister Ian Green wrote to Chopra. In the later letter, along with his gold watch, Chopra received a framed, honorary certificate signed by Prime Minister Paul Martin.

In contrast, the letter of dismissal cited concerns about Chopra’s work performance and blasted him for “total lack of progress” in a project he had been assigned. “I have concluded that you have chosen to deliberately refuse to comply with my instructions. “Given your previous disciplinary record and your continued unwillingness to accept responsibility for work assigned to you, I have determined that the bond of trust that is essential to productive employer-employee relationship has been irreparably breached,” his boss had said.

Whom to trust? Shiv Chopra, known for his integrity, said that this glowing letter was an insult after months of harassment and the final firing from the department. A leading health policy advocate has described them as “the last few scientists at Health Canada really looking out for health safety.”

Subsequently reprimanded and suspended by Health Canada, the scientists appealed to the Federal Court and were found to have acted in the public interest by alerting the wider community (through the media) to their safety concerns. Now they have been fired.

Dr Nancy Olivieri, a researcher who has had personal experience of what happens to doctors who blow the whistle on drug companies, and Prof Arthur Schafer, director of the Centre for Professional and Applied Ethics at the University of Manitoba, wrote a lengthy article in Toronto Star, defending these scientists.

“This much is clear: Those who fancy keeping their jobs should steer well clear of whistle-blowing since it has to rank as one of the country’s most dangerous work-related activities. Don’t be misled by the proud declaration made by many whistle-blowers that they would ‘do it all again.’ The sad reality is that powerful institutions usually manage — using the venerable tactic of ‘deny, delay, divide and discredit’ — to bury their internal critics.”

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