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Thursday, January 13, 2000

Gay study got $200,000 grant despite scathing assessment
Ministry officials scored project 'zero'
Stewart Bell
National Post

A federally funded study on discrimination against gays and lesbians was allowed to go ahead even though it had been described by Health Canada's research branch as seriously flawed, statistically worthless and ethically lacking, according to internal government documents.

The federal Health Department's national research and development program gave the study a rating of "zero" and refused to consider it for funding "until serious ethical and other concerns" had been addressed, including the lack of safeguards to protect the confidentiality of participants.

Aside from ethical concerns, the government's health research program found the study would not produce accurate statistics and did not address the problem of HIV and AIDS infection.

It also found the study had devoted a "sizeable amount" of its proposed budget to pricey consultants.

Despite the harsh opinion, the study went ahead anyway with close to $200,000 in funding from the Department of Justice and Status of Women Canada, led by Hedy Fry, the Liberal MP from British Columbia.

The federal government announced in May, 1998, that it was paying Equality for Gays and Lesbians Everywhere (EGALE), an Ottawa-based national lobby group for homosexuals, to conduct the First National Survey of Lesbians, Gay Men and Bisexuals. The decision was criticized by the Opposition, which said government research should not be conducted by a lobby group with a vested interest in the results.

Less than three weeks after Ms. Fry announced Ottawa was funding the study, Health Canada wrote to inform EGALE its application for a research grant had been turned down due to the failure to ensure "participant confidentiality and indeed anonymity" and other "serious flaws" with the proposal.

A central problem was that because the research was to be based on a small sample of surveys completed voluntarily, there was no way of accurately measuring whether the responses were representative of gays and lesbians across Canada, making the results of little value.

"For example, it's not clear whether persons who have experienced negative responses to their sexual orientation will be over-represented, because they desire an opportunity to reveal these issues, or whether they will be under-represented because they wish to avoid participation in such a study.

"The lack of any means of documenting who does and does not participate will mean that it will not be possible to really determine rates within any of the issues that are being examined." There were also doubts the research would reach rural gays and lesbians and "those who do not attend gay-identified venues."

The letter to EGALE also warned "about inadvertent identification of participants through some of the procedures that have been planned." It called the methods to be used to analyze the surveys "very weak" and noted concerns about the proposed budget.

"The budget is of some concern, since it appears that a sizable amount of the money is to be used to pay consultants who would be functioning in a role ordinarily fulfilled by researchers who are not paid for this participation, and that much of the work that the consultants will be carrying out would normally be done by a research officer, whose rate of payment would be considerably less."

There is no evidence that Ottawa intervened to pull out of the study, and the survey forms, which carried an official Government of Canada logo, were distributed across the country.

The study has since come to a standstill due to a legal dispute between EGALE and the two researchers who refuse to hand over the 8,000 completed survey forms. The researchers allege that while the survey was advertised as "totally anonymous, completely confidential," EGALE kept a database of those who had contacted its offices to request a copy of the questionnaire, which the researchers said was "unequivocally wrong."

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