February 22, 2022

When it comes to COVID-19, should academic freedom have limits? Ontario prof’s views raise questions | CBC News

A professor at Western University in London, Ont., is accusing a colleague of hiding behind the protections of academic freedom to spread misinformation about the effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines and other public health measures.

“Academic freedom comes with academic responsibilities,” said Jacob Shelley, who holds a joint appointment with Western’s faculty of law and the school of health studies, and directs the school’s Health Ethics, Law & Policy lab. “That means having integrity in our research, not just to say whatever the hell we want.” 

Shelley’s scorn is directed at Donald Welsh, a professor of physiology at Western’s Schulich School of Medicine and Dentistry.

Welsh has a specialization in cardiovascular biology, and regularly tweets and retweets information that challenges the effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines.

For his part, Welsh, in an email to CBC News, stands by his right to state his own opinions, spelling that out on his Twitter profile page.

Some of Welsh’s tweets include one on Jan. 7 that said, “I suspect our health minister is smart enough to understand that C19 vaccines are ineffective at mitigating infection, transmission and death. Seems more like a political rather than a scientific stance.” 

As employees of the university, individual faculty members have the freedom to express their opinions and beliefs, and those views are their own and do not represent the views of the school or university.– Western University statement

In a Jan. 13 tweet, he said “every aspect of Canada’s public response to C19 was devoid of sound scientific reasoning.”

On Jan. 23, Welsh responded to a tweet by Dr. Nathan Stall, a former member of Ontario’s COVID-19 Science Advisory Table who left that position last summer to run for the provincial Liberals in this spring’s provincial election. 

Stall took the Ontario PC government to task for what he saw as a low vaccination rate among kids. 

Welsh responded: “There is no need to vaccinate those who aren’t susceptible. This is the standard practice in most of the world.” 

Welsh’s Tweet drew a response from Dr. Genevieve Eastabrook, an associate professor in maternal-fetal medicine who also works at Schulich. 

“This individual knows nothing about preventative medicine, vaccination or public health,” Eastabrook wrote. “Yet again, I am embarrassed to work at the same institution as this person.”

Western says it can’t do much

CBC News reached out to Western University for a response to Welsh’s Twitter comments. 

In a statement, the university said Welsh’s views “do not align with the views of the Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry or Western University,” and they’re “disappointed that Don Welsh has decided to take the position that he has.”

The statement also says that while Welsh’s views “contradict the position of public health and the university,” there’s also not much the university can do about it. 

“As employees of the university, individual faculty members have the freedom to express their opinions and beliefs, and those views are their own and do not represent the views of the school or university.”

The statement goes on to say the school “continues to support all public health measures related to the ongoing pandemic.”

While a neonatal nurse at London Health Sciences Centre was fired last year for organizing anti-lockdown rallies and challenging public health measures such as lockdowns and masking, Welsh’s comments are protected by academic freedom. The underlying principle is professors shouldn’t have their research and writings influenced by fear of reprisals from their employer. 

Comments should face scrutiny 

However, Shelley said, any academic’s public statements should have to withstand scrutiny from their peers in the same way a PhD student’s dissertation is tested. 

“[Welsh’s tweets] are not reliable information,” he said. “They are not scientific, they would not get through a peer review.”

Western University law Prof. Jacob Shelley is accusing colleague Don Welsh of abusing the principle of academic freedom by putting forward false arguments about COVID-19 vaccines. (Western University)

Shelley began to challenge Welsh’s opinions on Twitter before his account blocked Shelley last year. Once that happened, Welsh hasn’t seen Shelley’s tweets and they weren’t included in the string of responses to Welsh’s Twitter commentary. 

“Clearly he was not very happy with my academic freedom to respond to his information,” said Shelley.

In the email to CBC News, Welsh said he does not claim to represent Schulich or the university on Twitter. He pointed to the statement on his Twitter profile page that says the opinions stated are Welsh’s own.

Welsh said discussion around the best public health responses to COVID-19 “is never settled and it would be incorrect to present it as such. That is why the conversation continues to evolve on places like Twitter. This process is organic and debate is fundamental.” 

Shelley agrees the debate should be more robust, but said the ivory tower world of academia is often averse to controversy and guided by a “don’t rock the boat” mentality.

Shelley said other professors often notify him of Welsh’s tweets in hopes he’ll challenge them. Shelley said they often don’t want to enter the fray themselves, for fear it will be career limiting. 

“A lot of people are afraid to speak out because there could be consequences,” said Shelley. “I have people telling me, ‘You should be careful because the central administration won’t forget and this will come back to bite you.'” 

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