Susan Zimmerman/Secretariat on Responsible Conduct of Research

Susan Zimmerman is the Executive Director, Secretariat on Responsible Conduct of Research. The Secretariat is a joint office created by CIHR, NSERC and SSHRC (the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council).

Susan Zimmerman - Photo HS.jpg

Let’s start with the basics. Did you always imagine yourself going to law school?

I must confess the answer is yes. I would rather have been a dancer (ballet), but I figured out early on I didn’t have the talent for that demanding career. Law was a close second. My dad was a lawyer of a kind you don’t see much anymore – general practice, mostly on his own or in small firms, mix of litigation, commercial, family, even a bit of criminal defence work. I loved listening to him talk about his clients, their problems and how he resolved them.

What did the journey from big law to your lawfully uncommon career look like?

It was a pretty circuitous route. I never sought a career in a big law firm. For my Ontario articles, I chose what was then the small Toronto branch of a large Montreal firm. For my Quebec articles, I did end up in a large Montreal firm, and worked there for a couple of years. While I learnt a lot, and the work was interesting, it wasn’t the right fit. I left to work for the President of the original Law Reform Commission of Canada. It was fascinating to work on policy issues, including briefs to parliamentary committees on issues such as abortion and euthanasia. When the Commission and every other think tank in the federal government were abolished in a single day by the federal budget of 1992, I knew I wanted to continue to work in legal policy. I became the Director of Legislation and Law Reform at the Canadian Bar Association, and that eventually led to a job with Justice, as legal counsel at Health Canada. I was responsible for advising the federal government on how to interpret and enforce the Canada Health Act, at a time when the government was looking to tackle compliance – for example, the lack of access to abortion services in certain provinces, and the growing phenomenon of some physicians charging fees for medically necessary services. I felt I was doing something important and making a difference. Next came an opportunity to serve as Director of Research of the new Law Commission of Canada (yes, the Liberals resurrected, in a new form, what the Tories had abolished) and to work for Rod Macdonald, one of my favorite McGill law profs, who had been appointed Chair. 

After a few years there, I did a Masters in Law at that rival institution, U of T, then tried a large law firm again, this time focusing on health law. Just confirmed what I had known already – not a good fit, and not a good place to provide legal policy advice. After that, I hit my stride at a job that provided (and still provides) a great mix of policy, law, and public interest. I head an office responsible for drafting, interpreting and ensuring compliance with the ethics and integrity policies for Canada’s three main research funding agencies. It’s endlessly interesting, has national and international scope and still makes me feel like I’m making a difference for everyone affected by research (which is, when you think about it, all of us).

What got your juices flowing or tickled your fancy while at law school?

I loved litigation, so I really enjoyed mooting. I was part of the Gale Cup Moot Team in third year. I loved that feeling of having to master all aspects of a case, anticipate the best counterarguments to your own arguments, think on your feet and respond to whatever might be thrown at you.

I also enjoyed research – digging deep into a topic, seeing what others have said about it, and figuring out your own position. I was part of the McGill Law Journal for two years. The experience instilled in me a respect for the importance of going back and checking sources, a quality that serves me well in my current job which includes, among other things, keeping researchers honest about the claims they make in their work.

What made your blood boil or made you snooze while at law school?

Injustice has always made my blood boil. Studying law, you are exposed to many examples of injustice and how people fought it. They don’t always win. I always knew I would be most fulfilled using my knowledge of the legal system to help make law more just. 

As for snoozing – I could never get excited about real property or corporate law. Still can’t.

Do you still see law all around you?

Absolutely. Although my current role is not classified as a legal position, the basic elements of ethics and integrity are grounded in concepts that are fundamental to law: fairness, due process, equity, respect for persons, consent, autonomy… they go on and on. 

You are at a coffee house speaking to a first-year law student. What advice would you give them? 

Do what you love. It sounds trite, and it’s hard advice to follow at first, when you haven’t got much experience and you’re keen to just get out and get a job. But inevitably, you shine when you are working at things that matter to you, that inspire you, or that get your creative juices flowing. It might not be a particular field of law – it might be a particular work environment. Public service is not always viewed as a desirable career path – but at its best, it offers opportunities to improve society across a wide range of fields – opportunities that rarely exist in private practice, and often only as a pro bono add-on to one’s daily responsibilities. 

The working world is a much more diverse place than we realize, and it is even more diverse now than it was when I was a law student. Legal knowledge is a great advantage in a wide variety of pursuits. Don’t limit yourself when imagining what you can do with a law degree.

What does a day in your life look like? Give us the rundown!

There’s never a dull moment. My small team is responsible for responding to requests from researchers, research ethics boards and academic administrators across the country, wanting guidance on how to apply our policies to issues that arise in the course of research. What research incentives constitute coercion? How do we protect the privacy of research participants who donated human biological materials? How do you reconcile the benefits of sharing research to advance knowledge with the need to protect proprietary interests in research data? 

Apart from the research ethics side of my work, my office is also responsible for receiving and reviewing reports from institutions across the country when they have investigated allegations of breach of responsible conduct of research. These include acts like plagiarism, falsification and fabrication of data, mismanagement of research funds, improper attribution of authorship on scholarly papers, misrepresentation on applications for funding, improper treatment of research animals, failure to treat human research participants ethically… Truly, no two files are alike. We then brief an independent advisory panel of experts, who recommend an appropriate recourse for the presidents of the funding agencies. This can result in researchers getting a mild letter of awareness about what they did wrong, to revoking their eligibility for funding for a limited period, or, in the worst cases, permanently. These recourses can have a significant impact on a researcher’s career, so we need to consider the seriousness of the breach and the impact it has had on the public record before providing our advice. 

Sometimes the day gets interrupted by a request from the media to comment on a hot issue, or from a Minister’s office for information.  Like I said, never a dull moment.

 Susan speaking at the 4th World Conference on Research Integrity in Rio in 2015.

Susan speaking at the 4th World Conference on Research Integrity in Rio in 2015.

If you were given the blessing and curse of an extra hour every day to do whatever you wanted, what would it be?

Spend more time with friends! As we get older and our responsibilities increase, we get so caught up our world of work and home. As students, we always had a chance to hang out with friends. Now, those fun and interesting people are managing firms, running universities, sitting on the bench – and they live all over the world. 

On the professional side, I would love an extra hour to just sit and reflect on the bigger picture of what I do. It’s too easy to lose sight of that strategic vision when you’re responding to the demands of the day. I’d love more time to read the literature in my field, see what others are thinking, and flex those intellectual muscles that were so essential in law school.

Any regrets?

Wish I hadn’t felt the need to try to make it at a big firm. Twice. But not sorry I had the exposure to that environment.

Wish I’d done my Master’s in London (England) when I had the opportunity, instead of worrying that it wouldn’t help me get a good job when I returned. Pretty ironic that the “secure” job I opted not to leave disappeared when the Law Reform Commission was abolished a year later. Bit of a lesson there…?