Willie Soon, Academic Freedom, and How We Can Deal With Undisclosed Conflicts of Interest

March 3, 2015 | 3:16 pm
Gretchen Goldman
Former Contributor

In the last week, the Internet has blown up. There were llamas, dresses, and bird-riding weasels. But what also blew up was an important discussion about conflict of interest disclosure and what information academic scientists should be expected to make public. Above all else, the debate has made clear that conflict of interest disclosure rules are lacking and that we need clarity from Congress, scientific societies, and academic institutions on how these issues should be addressed.

News that Willie Soon failed to disclose funding from Southern Company, ExxonMobil, and Koch Industries last week has spurred conversations about what scientists should be obligated to disclose. Photo: Wikipedia

News that Willie Soon failed to disclose funding from Southern Company, ExxonMobil, and Koch Industries last week has spurred conversations about what scientists should be obligated to disclose. Graphic: Wikipedia

“I want the disclosure [of funding sources]. Then people can draw their own conclusions.” This is what Rep. Grijalva explained in his appearance on The Ed Show yesterday, clarifying the main intention of his requests for information to seven universities regarding financial relationships between professors who have testified to Congress and corporate actors. It was great to see the U.S. representative acknowledge that a request for non-funding-related correspondence may have been an “overreach,” in a National Journal interview. This is the kind of informed response that many of us hoped the past week’s debate would spur.

And more broadly, I was pleased to see Rep. Grijalva pursue conflict of interest issues, as history shows us that undisclosed conflicts of interest can undermine science policy debates, on anything from climate, to hydraulic fracturing, to health policy on sugar.

“Investigations should be targeted.”

Rep. Grijalva’s requests came after last week’s revelation that climate contrarian researcher Willie Soon may have violated conflict of interest rules when he failed to disclose funding sources on several published scientific papers. My colleague Michael Halpern made clear the degree to which such requests are appropriate in a post last week. The short of it? Inquiries into financial relationships are appropriate, other communications are not.

As outlined in the recent UCS report, Freedom to Bully, and reiterated in a blog post I recently wrote, “Investigations should be targeted. Overly broad open records requests can intimidate scientists and take significant time away from their research.”

Since then, several scientific societies have also weighed in, echoing many of these points. “Requesting copies of the researcher’s communications … or the preparation of testimony impinges on the free pursuit of ideas that is central to the concept of academic freedom,” wrote the American Meteorological Society (AMS) in a letter to Rep. Grijalva on February 27. In a blog post, the American Geophysical Union wrote, “Asking scientists to disclose who funded their research is not unreasonable … but asking them to share drafts of testimony or communications about that testimony goes too far.” (In the spirit of disclosure, I’ve been a member of both AMS and AGU.)

Conflict of interest rules in Congress (and lack thereof)

But the AGU blog post also touches on another important point—conflict of interest rules in Congress. “Congress must be consistent in their application of disclosure requirements for both private and public funding sources,” Leinen writes. As my colleague Michael Halpern raised in a post last week, Congress is far from consistent on this issue currently. In fact, there are committees where witnesses are asked to disclose their government funding but not their funding from private sources. In what world does this make sense?

We need better rules governing conflict of interest disclosure for Congressional testimony. And such rules should be applied consistently across committees. It isn’t rocket science. (Though rocket scientists, too, should disclose their funding sources, of course.) We can put policies in place that enforce better disclosure standards.

We need to improve and enforce disclosure rules

Last month, I spoke at a town hall discussion on hydraulic fracturing at UT-Austin’s EnergyWeek. Before the event, all panelists were asked to disclose their conflicts of interest. This process took nearly 10 minutes as panelists listed off past and current relationships they had with the oil and gas industry. But leading with this process enabled the conversation to move forward since there was clarity from the beginning on where people stood. Transparency improves the dialogue.

We can address the current case of undisclosed funding of Willie Soon and other contrarian researchers, but this issue is bound to come up again in climate conversations and other scientific topics where powerful interests have a stake. We should make sure that for that future case, we have strong rules in place to deal with it. Beyond this week’s internet buzz, we should take this opportunity to improve our rules on disclosure.