U of T community members and the scientific and medical communities have expressed support for David Fisman, a prominent professor of epidemiology at U of T’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health (DLSPH), after he was criticized by the Toronto Sun and the Ford government for not disclosing a potential conflict of interest that was already public information.
The criticism revolves around the fact that Fisman has worked as a consultant for the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO) while serving on the Ontario COVID-19 Science Advisory Table, which advises the provincial government.
Fisman has been an influential voice in the U of T community during the pandemic, criticizing certain aspects of the government’s COVID-19 plan and supporting safe reopenings of schools under certain conditions. He has been critical of U of T’s reopening plans, drawing attention to potentially unsafe conditions.
An article from the Toronto Sun on Wednesday pointed out a potential conflict of interest with his position on the Ontario COVID-19 Science Advisory Table, which is housed at the DLSPH and includes a number of U of T-affiliated professors, with the goal of providing scientific insights and advice to the provincial government to guide its response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The article claims that Fisman did not originally disclose a relationship with the ETFO, a teachers’ union in Ontario.
The ETFO hired Fisman as a paid consultant on an advisory panel to give expert testimony in a dispute between the four major education unions in Ontario, including the ETFO, and the Ontario Labour Relations board, who were challenging the province’s plan to reopen in the fall. In this role, he submitted an affidavit to the union that criticized the province’s plan to reopen schools as unsafe and not sufficient to curb the spread of COVID-19 in schools.
In a statement released on Twitter on January 26, ETFO President Sam Hammond wrote that the provincial government was “certainly aware of the experts with whom [it was] working,” and questioned why Fisman’s involvement was now seen as a conflict of interest when it was not previously.
Ontario Premier Doug Ford then echoed the Toronto Sun’s criticism of Fisman in a press release, calling the potential conflict of interest “deeply concerning” and asserting that Fisman should have disclosed his work with the ETFO when he was appointed.
However, his involvement with the ETFO has always been public information. Fisman also claimed that the work was originally done with no intention of payment but that representatives for the union insisted. Some have also suggested that the criticisms may be part of a larger effort by the Ontario government to silence infectious disease experts who are critical of its pandemic response.
In a series of tweets from January 29, Fisman responded to the allegations, writing that Ford “insinuated” that he had a conflict of interest, “which I don’t.” He expressed thanks for the outpouring of support but called the allegations a “distraction” from the increasingly dire pandemic situation, adding, “I’m not going anywhere.”
Following criticisms from the provincial government, Fisman’s declaration of interest form, available publicly on the Ontario COVID-19 Science Advisory Table’s website, has been updated as of January 26 to include his involvement with the ETFO.
Ontario COVID-19 Science Advisory Table
Rob Steiner, an assistant professor at DLSPH, responded to questions as a representative for the Ontario COVID-19 Science Advisory Table in an email to The Varsity. According to Steiner, Fisman offered his resignation to the table, though the table did not accept it.
“Because Science Table members serve as a [sic] volunteers, and because they are independent, we understand that they will also continue to engage in the range of work… Professor Fisman and other academics on the Science table are free to speak on the disciplines they research,” wrote Steiner.
Steiner continued, “Community work is a critical part of public health practice and enriches academic knowledge. So, many scientists have potential conflicts of interest that do not disqualify them from participating at the table. We do, however, expect everyone to declare those interests transparently in a way that is standard for science.”
When the table was established at the start of the pandemic, universities in Ontario were asked to nominate potential candidates, who were then selected based on their experience and area of expertise. The table has continued to appoint additional members based on its need for guidance in specific areas.
Steiner explained the process of appointing table members, which is carried out by the co-chairs Professor Adalsteinn Brown and Professor Brian Schwartz, who consult with the scientific director and the assistant scientific director. This group invites and appoints table members.
According to Steiner, the group does not look into potential conflicts of interest beyond the declaration of interest form that applicants are asked to fill out, which they were going to be asked to update every six months. The group is in the process of asking members to update these forms and will now ask them for updates every three months.
His relationship with the ETFO is now listed as a conflict of interest disclosure in his declaration of interest statement, where it was not previously.
A number of high ranking government officials have publicly sided with Fisman, including Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland, who thanked Fisman for the guidance he has provided during the pandemic.
Many members of the U of T community have also taken to Twitter to speak out in support of Fisman using the hashtag #thankyoudavidfisman. They described him as a valuable member of the scientific community.
Some of the people who expressed their support were U of T Vice-Dean Clinical and Faculty Affairs Lynn Wilson, alum Sabina Vohra-Miller, and Assistant Professor Angela Mashford-Pringle.
Vohra-Miller, who graduated in 2009 with a graduate degree in pharmaceutical sciences and now sits on the DLSPH’s Dean’s Advisory Committee, weighed in as well.
“Experts are often called on for their objective opinions in legal proceedings, they should absolutely be paid for their time and labour. That Dr Fisman was involved with these legal proceedings by ETFO is, in fact, public knowledge,” she wrote in an email to The Varsity. She added that she believes Fisman’s guidance to be “consistent, unbiased and objective across the board.”
Additionally, Vohra-Miller brought up an instance in which Fisman recused himself from a brief on schools at the table’s August meeting due to the potential conflict with the ETFO.
“I fully support Dr David Fisman and thank him for his continued work and expertise in his various roles within DLSPH, Institute for Pandemics and the Ontario Science table,” wrote Vohra-Miller, who is also a co-director of the Vohra-Miller Foundation, which donated $1 million to the DLSPH to launch a new Institute for Pandemics.
In an email to The Varsity, Angela Mashford-Pringle, an assistant professor and associate director at the Waakebiness-Bryce Institute for Indigenous Health at DLSPH, explained why she voiced her support for Fisman. “I don’t believe he should be removed from the Ontario Science Table as the work for ETFO was advising about publicly available protocols and the impact that has for educators in elementary schools in Ontario.”
Mashford-Pringle also cited Fisman’s work at U of T, where she said he has put effort into learning about how COVID-19 has affected different communities. She wrote that she has “heard from the MPH-Indigenous Health students that he has answered their questions and invited them into his courses which are more focussed on epidemiology than the Indigenous Health courses.”
The Varsity has reached out to Fisman for comment. Vice-Dean Clinical and Faculty Affairs Lynn Wilson declined to comment.