Brown University supports the academic freedom of Dr. David Kern
In this statement, Brown University reiterates its full and unequivocal support for the academic freedom of Dr. David Kern, an associate professor of medicine and a specialist in occupational health employed by The Memorial Hospital in Pawtucket, R.I. (See also 96-133a, a statement by Lois Monteiro, associate dean of medicine for faculty affairs.)
Brown University and the Brown University School of Medicine recognize the importance and value of work undertaken by Dr. David Kern and fully support Dr. Kern in his right to conduct research and in his academic freedom to publish results.
Dr. Kern, a specialist in occupational health and an associate professor of medicine employed by The Memorial Hospital in Pawtucket, R.I., investigated two cases of interstitial lung disease in employees at a textile processing plant at the request of the company. His decision to present his results at a national meeting led to disagreements among Dr. Kern, The Memorial Hospital and the textile company.
While this case involves many complexities and uncertainties, the position of Brown University and the Brown University School of Medicine is clear: All faculty have a right to conduct research and publish results, and the University and the School of Medicine fully support that right. Dr. Kern published his abstract and is to present his findings to a national meeting of the American Thoracic Society in San Francisco today (Wednesday, May 21, 1997).
As discussion of academic freedom issues continues, it is important to bear in mind that the work in which Dr. Kern was engaged involved the health and safety of workers, both at a local company and elsewhere in the textile industry. A committee appointed by Donald Marsh, M.D., dean of medicine and biological sciences at Brown University, noted that the company is making a good-faith effort to identify and remedy the problem. It has hired a physician trained in occupational health to continue Dr. Kern's work and is continuing its relationship with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), a relationship which Dr. Kern helped initiate.
As the committee noted, many questions remain unresolved in this case. The School of Medicine administration will continue discussions both internally and with officials at Memorial Hospital. Among the remaining areas of discussion:
- Extent of the confidentiality agreement. Dr. Kern signed a confidentiality agreement with the company in order to begin his work. The events that form the substance of the current disagreement took place during investigation of a second case 16 months later. Some correspondents have said that the possible threat to employee health supercedes the agreement. The company believes Dr. Kern's disclosure violates the agreement.
As an employee of the hospital, Dr. Kern was not required to present his confidentiality agreement to the University for approval. Had he done so, the University's research administrators most likely would have sought changes because of the limitations the agreement placed on disclosure. It is clear that NIOSH negotiated a different and less restrictive agreement. The University is concerned that by signing the confidentiality agreement, Dr. Kern may unwittingly have accepted limits on disclosure.
- Oral or written contracts. Work with the textile company proceeded under an oral agreement - not a written contract - between the company and The Memorial Hospital and, while Dr. Kern did provide the company with a written set of research guidelines, the company did not accept those guidelines in writing. The absence of a written contract and clear, agreed-upon guidelines was a signficant problem in this case and is in apparent violation of accepted professional standards for research of this nature.
- Institutional responsibilities. With few exceptions, clinical faculty members of the Brown University School of Medicine are not employed by the University, but are employees of the eight hospitals affiliated with the medical school.
When Dr. Kern announced his intention to publish an abstract of his findings and present his work at a national meeting, the company took exception. It pursued the issue with the hospital, which asked Dr. Kern to withdraw the abstract. The company ended its arrangement with Dr. Kern, and the hospital later informed Dr. Kern that it was discontinuing its occupational health service. The occupational health program was a clinical service of Memorial Hospital, and the hospital has a right to add or discontinue services as it deems appropriate.
The School of Medicine is concerned, however, that by discontinuing the service, Memorial Hospital is interfering with Dr. Kern's ability to conduct research in his area of expertise and may be diminishing the school's capacity to provide medical students with experience in occupational medicine. Dean Marsh is discussing those concerns directly with senior administrators at the hospital.
Brown University reaffirms its support for the academic freedom of hospital-employed physicians who hold faculty appointments in the School of Medicine. The University will issue new and clearer guidelines for such faculty, including further delineation of the rights and responsibilities of individual hospital-based faculty and the University with respect to research agreements.
Brown urges Dr. Kern and The Memorial Hospital to work toward a resolution of remaining differences and pledges its support in bringing about a settlement that is mutually agreeable to both sides.######