Rep. Grijalva’s Requests and the Real Problem with Conflict of Interest Disclosure

, former deputy director, Center for Science & Democracy | February 26, 2015, 6:43 pm EDT
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On Tuesday, Arizona Representative Raul Grijalva asked seven academics for their sources of funding and earlier drafts of testimony they have delivered before congressional committees. Since then, many have debated whether the requests cross the line into harassment or witch hunts or McCarthyism. Lost in the discussion around whether the requests are too broad is a bigger question to address: Why don’t we already know who funds the work of those who testify before Congress?

In the narrowest sense, a certain level of mistrust of congressional witnesses has developed because there are inadequate rules in place to both disclose and police real or perceived conflicts of interest. As the number of industry witnesses before some congressional committees has increased, disclosure rules have been relaxed. It is backwards and absurd that in some committees, witnesses must disclose government funding but need not disclose private sector funding. Can we really accept a claim that scientists working on public sector research grants are more suspect of conflicted interests than industry-funded scientist witnesses?

Public trust in those who testify before Congress goes down when they don't need to disclose their sources of funding. Photo: USDA via Flickr

Public trust in those who testify before Congress goes down when they don’t need to disclose their sources of funding. Photo: USDA via Flickr

So why wouldn’t one be suspicious?

The real question isn’t about the seven universities who received the requests, and whether the academics they employ deserve special scrutiny. It’s about accountability that is too easily circumvented. Congress should consider strengthening disclosure rules for those who testify before Congress to include industry funding and made more consistent across congressional committees (and to apply not just to academics but to all witnesses, including those from think tanks).

But this is about more than who speaks before Congress.

Presumably, what motivated Rep. Grijvala’s letters, and similar letters from three senators, was the exposure of agreements between the Smithsonian Institution and Southern Company that gave the utility control over disclosure of its funding of the institution and the ability to review the work of one of the Smithsonian’s scientists. Many industries, often through their trade associations, have worked hard to sow doubt and create confusion about climate science (and the science of chemical toxicity, sugar, tobacco, etc.) with the public and with all kinds of decision makers.

To be sure, scientists should be able to receive industry funding and to collaborate and test ideas with other scientists, and that includes scientists from industry. But it cannot be ignored that inappropriate industry influence on universities is growing both in scope and method of delivery. The Koch Foundation gave millions of dollars to Florida State University, for example; the undisclosed strings attached to their donation allow the foundation to help determine what professors are hired and what texts they teach. The creation of counterfeit science through “ghostwriting” of scientific articles, where, say, a pharmaceutical interest pays an academic to publish research that supports their products, is all too common.

Is it any surprise that some legislators are wondering how various industries have secretly used the veneer of esteemed educational institutions to increase the credibility of their arguments?

Some universities, such as Florida State, have accepted donations that come with significant strings, such as the ability to pick professors and influence curriculum. Photo: Jackson Myers (j-a-x-) via Flickr

Some universities, such as Florida State, have accepted donations that come with significant strings, such as the ability to pick professors and influence curriculum. Photo: Jackson Myers (j-a-x-) via Flickr

On the individual level, public disclosure should be part of what it means to be an academic. It’s not as if researchers aren’t used to compiling this information. For advisory panels and publications, the National Science Foundation and most federal agencies require grant seekers to list current and recent support when submitting proposals. This information is currently available to proposal review committees, but not yet to the public.

On the institutional level, universities should take a closer look at how they manage inappropriate industry influence to build trust in the independence of university researchers. When universities accept large gifts from individuals, foundations, and industry, and then fund researchers with those dollars—which is an entirely acceptable practice—they should disclose any conditions that come with those grants. They should also create expectations that their employees will follow common disclosure practices, and should exact meaningful penalties for those who fail to disclose.

And who should decide what should be disclosed and what should be kept private, whether the requests come from members of Congress or through open records laws?

There is a growing need for academic societies, public interest organizations, journalists, the National Academies, industry, and other stakeholders to come up with common disclosure standards that balance the public’s interest in transparency with the public’s interest in reasonable privacy and the ability of researchers to do their best work.

Otherwise, we’ll just keep spending time, money, energy, and attention on the next allegation that someone has something to hide, which has case-specific but limited value, and we won’t solve the underlying problem.

Posted in: Global Warming, Science and Democracy, Scientific Integrity Tags: , , , , , , , ,

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  • DB

    What is funny is that a great number of IPCC scientists received funding from fossil fuel contributors as they are open and contribute to both sides of the aisle (surely they have their own bad greedy intentions), none of them are under investigation. Greenpeace already released the stuff about Soon over 4 years ago, which is why this is little more than a witch-hunt on many very distinguished scientific individuals. Pielke for instance who is for most of the carbon controls and eco-sanctions the government supports. Soon has put out fantastic work, not just a dissenting opinion on climate change, and when we stop looking at both sides of an issue and demonizing one side, that is when science is gone. Skepticism and differing opinions are the backbone of science. (take for instance new quantum theory on the lack of a big bang recently, that excites science, it doesn’t depress it). What depresses science is this McCarthyism enabled and supported by the journalists all for an ideology. By the way William Soon’s total donations received ended up being less than 60k a year for him and his staff from Exxon (which he disclosed in many ways). It would be nice if these politicians doing these witch hunts were as looked into.

    It is a sad day for science, but these days there is no such thing as science, just the person that supports you and the one that doesn’t. It’s ok though, much like the Catholic Church of old, you can simply silence dissenters.

  • Stephen Y

    It would be great if someone could compare and contrast this case with the Michael Mann case that UCS was involved in. What lines are appropriate, and what are not?

  • GO

    Thank you for not letting this important information get lost