University President Lawrence H. Summers apologized to students at Beijing University Tuesday for genetic studies Harvard conducted in rural China without properly obtaining participants’ consent.
“What happened was wrong and it was badly wrong,” Summers said in response to a question after a speech at the university.
In an interview yesterday, Summers reiterated that the School of Public Health (SPH) had failed to adequately oversee the researchers’ work in the late 1990s and endorsed moves by SPH to improve monitoring.
“When this came to my attention, I insisted, though there was no argument, that we needed to put in place much more satisfactory procedures so that this did not happen again,” Summers said.
An investigation by the federal Office of Human Research Protection concluded in March that SPH researchers conducting genetic testing programs in the Anhui province of China failed to disclose information about their studies to participants, such as the studies’ voluntary nature.
The government also faulted Harvard’s internal review of the research, which “regularly failed to be substantive and meaningful,” the report said.
Fifteen studies—conducted by Associate Professor Xiping Xu, Professor David C. Christiani and Cobb Professor of Psychiatry Ming T. Tsuang—were cited for violations.
SPH spokesperson Robin Herman said the school began to address problems with research oversight before the federal probe had issued its final report.
Efforts are ongoing, she said. SPH has beefed up its internal review board and created a separate program to assure that consent procedures are followed in all of their research.
The research of Xu remains suspended pending the report of an outside auditor.
After a similar audit, Christiani was recently allowed to resume research activities. His studies under investigation had already been completed, but until his reinstatement he had been barred from all research.
Christiani’s subsequent research will be reviewed on a regular, more frequent basis, Herman said.
In the weeks leading up to Summers’ China trip, the controversy over the studies had garnered attention in the Chinese press. An article in the Beijing-based People’s Daily called on Harvard and Millennium Pharmaceuticals—which funded some of the research—to provide restitution for participants in the studies.
Summers said he was asked about the SPH studies “once or twice” during his five day trip, but he would not comment on whether the question of restitution has been raised with him.
—Staff writer David H. Gellis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.