A University of Minnesota ethics scandal naturally turns into a business opportunity

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The death of patient Dan Markingson, who was coerced into a drug experiment, was the reason why the U's former VP of research Brian Herman and outside expert David Strauss crossed paths in 2014. Now they have a business focusing on human research ethics.

Brian Herman, the University of Minnesota's former VP of research, met Columbia University psychiatrist David Strauss during the implosion of the U's worst ethics scandal in recent memory.

It was 2014, and a panel of outside experts, including Strauss, were hired to review the U's human research protections. Told not to delve into the any specific cases, they nevertheless concluded that the U seemed more interested in protecting its reputation than taking responsibility for its mistakes.

The panel was referring to the case of Dan Markingson, a 26-year-old man who in 2003 agreed to enroll in an experimental drug study conducted by his psychiatrist, the U's Dr. Stephen Olson, after being told that the alternative would be getting locked up in mental institution.

Soon, he began to show signs of deterioration, prompting his worried mother to beg for his release from the study. Olson declined, and Markingson killed himself with a boxcutter.

The University of Minnesota spent the subsequent 10 years dodging responsibility, assuring everyone that the U's ethics were sound, turning down challenges for an independent review of the case, and refusing to apologize to Markingson's mother.

Though Herman did his part to try and assuage the public that nothing was amiss, Legislative Auditor James Nobles eventually put an end to that public relations message with the publication of a special report upbraiding U leaders for exploiting Markingson, then covering up their tracks. Herman eventually resigned as VP.

Though Herman continues to teach as a professor of biomedical engineering, this year he launched a new business venture based in San Antonio, Texas, in partnership with his one-time critic Strauss and Claudia Neuhauser, associate VP in the U's office of research.

A research consulting firm that advertises as a major focus "the oversight of research with vulnerable populations," Herman/Strauss/Neuhauser & Associates soon caught the attention of several U faculty.

They in turn alerted bioethics Prof. Carl Elliott, one of Herman's biggest critics.

"I am cynical, but not even I suspected that the administrative geniuses responsible for mismanaging the Markingson and Huber cases could turn it into a business opportunity," Elliott said.

"I do think it's troubling that VP Herman has formed a consultancy with David Strauss," added political science professor Teri Caraway. "As you know, Strauss served on the external review committee that reviewed the university's practices related to vulnerable human subjects. Whether or not there was any hanky panky going on behind the scenes, it looks bad for Strauss to then go into business with Herman. It gives the impression of a chummy relationship rather than one that should have been arm's length."

Herman wants to be clear -- the Markingson review was the first time he had met Strauss, and they didn't start discussing a possible money-making opportunity until after he'd left his position as VP of research. Their firm will not do business with the U of M, he says, as that would be a conflict of interest.

"Over time we agreed we both had some relevant background and expertise, and we could provide that to other institutions in what is turning out to be a very challenging issue to deal with," Herman said.

Included in that expertise are hard lessons learned from the Markingson case.

"When you're dealing with patients that have impaired decision making ... you need to make sure that those individuals are represented well by appropriate people who have the capacity to make the decision on behalf of those individuals," he reflected. "And I think that if something does happen and is not planned, that may be detrimental, that it's best to be honest about it, transparent about it."

 


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