Biosafety program gets national attention
The University of Saskatchewan is good at many things but according to the national agencies that provide funding for research, its biosafety program is the best in the country.
Corrine Harris, biosafety manager with the Department of Health, Safety and Environment (DHSE), said the March visit by Tri-Council auditors representing the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, the Medical Research Council and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council was ordinary enough – they came to campus to review the process that governs how biosafety risk is addressed from the moment a researcher receives funding.
The auditors selected random research projects and reviewed the documentation with Harris. “They picked the tricky ones,” she said, “but we had all the answers to their questions.” It quickly became apparent this was a special situation when Harris asked the auditors what improvements she might make to her biosafety program, “and they were speechless. They said they’d never seen a process this good, and I thought they were just being nice.”
She knew they were serious when she received a phone call asking her to document the U of S biosafety process so it could be included in the Tri-Council guidelines as the best practice in Canada.
Harris explained the U of S biosafety program applies to the use of all biological materials, from live animals to tissues to viruses and bacteria. The goal “is to educate, mitigate risk and ensure all facilities meet our standards, and that’s what we do very well.”
Several factors make the U of S process unique. One is that Health Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency guidelines were incorporated into the University’s biosafety code. Another is that everyone working with biological material on campus is registered with Harris – no exceptions.
“From beginning to end, we know who they are and where they are, and no one has research money released until the proper biosafety paperwork is in place with me. I don’t try to hold up funding because funding is what drives research, but it’s the only way to make this work. That’s where this differs from other universities.”
In addition to keeping an up-to-date registry of researchers, Harris is responsible for lab inspections to ensure safety guidelines are being followed, is involved in accessing import permits for biological materials, and is even consulted on the design of new research facilities on campus.
She has also thrown her safety net over the National Research Council facilities on campus, as well as the synchrotron. “They house our adjunct professors. They house our grad students. They have to meet or exceed our safety standards.”
Harris is quick to point out the support of the President’s Advisory Committee on Biosafety and Research Services is critical to the success of the program. “At some universities, they don’t take this seriously. I’ve seen it, but here we do. If you don’t have buy-in, if you don’t have help, it won’t happen.”