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DNA STUDY: ASU CLAIMS NO SLIP-UPS

By   /   June 25, 2011  /   Comments

By Kevin Hogencamp

 

Albany State University is refuting allegations that it botched a federally funded 2010 DNA study involving 21 undergraduate students by failing to obtain approval for the project beforehand and by not following privacy regulations, training requirements and other protocol, public records show.

The project’s planners – including ASU President Everette Freeman, who was the project’s director — did not obtain parental consent or make provisions to offer assistance to participants who discovered unanticipated DNA test results, records show.

But in a statement last week, the university said allegations lodged by the university’s Institutional Review Board are unfounded.

“Due to initial precautionary concerns voiced by the ASU Institutional Review Board (IRB), the Ancestry Project Staff submitted a request to the IRB on May 25 for approval of human subject research as a measure of extra caution,” the university said in a statement. “Later, the Ancestry Project staff did withdraw that application because the scope of the project did not require such approval nor did the project require HIPPA training since no activities involved the student as a subject of research.

“Specifically, the project involved student participants who voluntarily collected saliva samples from their own mouths to be sent off for analysis by a commercial vendor to determine their ancestor’s geographic place of origin. There have been no HIPPA violations involving this project.”

The approval request was withdrawn months after the project was completed, however.

ASU officials, including Freeman, have refused to be interviewed or provide further comment.

The DNA project was conducted from May-July 2010 without IRB approval. In September 2010, the IRB concluded that the ASU DNA Ancestry staff displayed “research misconduct,” then-IRB Chairman Cassandra M. Smith, said in a letter to Title III Program Director Connie Leggett.

Since then, the matter has been reported to the U.S. Department of Education Office of Inspector General and Smith no longer works for the university.

Freeman is listed on a federal grant application as the project director, and in March 2010, responding to an inquiry from Freeman, Smith asked Freeman to ensure that the project participants be trained according to federal guidelines. Neither Freeman nor Leggett, however, arranged for the training.

The DNA study was among the issues cited last month in a scathing report by an ASU professors’ group alleging fraud, grade changing, mismanagement, hostile employment practices and widespread state policy violations at the university. The IRB says a significant outcome of the blunders is that due to federal protocol being sidestepped is that the study’s results cannot be widely published as planned by the project’s organizers.

An Institutional Review Board is a committee mandated by the National Research Act, to be established within each institution that conducts biomedical or behavioral research involving human participants and receives federal funding for research involving human participants. The purpose of the IRB is to review all proposals for human research before the research is conducted to determine whether the research plan has adequately included the ethical dimensions of the project.

According to ASU records, the DNA study was part of an eight-week course during which students traced their DNA using a commercial vendor (Ancestry.com) to which they submitted a DNA cheek swab. The university purchased the kits, but the students’ DNA results were available only to the students and were protected by an online password, the university said.

The Ancestry Project covered the sciences, social sciences, history and humanities. In its statement, ASU said “the project brought interdisciplinary research and pedagogy together by having students explore the subject matter with an emphasis on their ancestry.”

“With faculty serving as instructors in subject-matter from ASU approved courses, students were guided in these subject areas, referencing their own ancestry. Based on the genetic markers in the DNA, students were able to identify the clan of their ancestors and, with faculty guidance, explored the African Diaspora and the migration of their ancestors,” the university said. “These students also created journals to document their experience and write essays on their research discoveries.”

The Ancestry Project was funded by the U.S. Department of Education under Title III Historically Black Colleges and Universities College Cost Reduction and Access Act. ASU received $5.4 million in Title III funding – which pays for many of the university’s faculty, staff and consultants — this year.

On Oct. 19 – four months after the eight-week course that included the DNA study concluded — Leggett withdrew the project’s application for IRB human subject approval.

The DNA study was among the issues cited last month in a scathing report by an ASU professors’ group alleging fraud, grade changing, mismanagement, hostile employment practices and widespread state policy violations at the university. The IRB says a significant outcome of the blunders is that due to federal protocol being sidestepped is that the study’s results cannot be widely published as planned by the project’s organizers.

The American Association of University Professors’ ASU chapter asks in the report that the Board of Regents “conduct a formal and thorough investigation of our findings regarding concerns, complaints and perceived administrative violations brought forth by members of the faculty; and to examine documents submitted – and others not made available to the chapter – in order to verify their truthfulness and their compliance with ASU statutes, BOR policies, state of Georgia law principles, and federal law governing grants and contacts …”

Freeman has not responded to the Albany Journal’s request for an interview about the AAUP report. The Board of Regents, meanwhile, is reviewing the matter.

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About the author

Owner / Editor / Writer

Tom Knighton is the publisher of The Albany Journal. In November, 2011, he became the first blogger to take over a newspaper anywhere in the world. In August of 2012, he made the difficult decision to take the Journal out of print circulation and become an online news agency, a first for the Albany area.

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