Who Should Decide What Happens When Scientists Violate Conflict of Interest Rules?

, former deputy director, Center for Science & Democracy | February 3, 2015, 10:28 am EDT
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Scientists and institutions are under increasing scrutiny to be more transparent, especially when they publish research that has bearing on major public policy debates, and with good reason: funding can influence how studies are conducted and results are presented. It’s not easy though; when it comes to disclosure of conflicts of interest, practices vary across scientific disciplines, journals and institutions, and the lines regarding what should be disclosed are sometimes blurry.

My UCS colleague Aaron Huertas recently told me about attending a physician’s talk on the effects that artificial lighting can have on people’s sleep patterns. It’s not a particularly controversial topic, but the physician had a slide full of text disclosing every potential conflict of interest he could think of. “While the print was so small that none of us were able to actually read the slide,” said Aaron in his typically wry way, “it was a nice gesture.”

The Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics studies galaxies and black holes (such as the one in this composite image) and other topics in astrophysics. One scientist at the institution has been accused of failing to disclose financial conflicts of interest in a recent paper questioning the scientific consensus on climate change.

The Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics studies galaxies and black holes (such as the one in this composite image) and other topics in astrophysics. One scientist at the institution has been accused of failing to disclose financial conflicts of interest in a recent paper questioning the scientific consensus on climate change. Photo: Smithsonian Institution

It was also important. Whether it’s artificial lighting or the toxicity of chemicals, many industries fight hard to influence public and policymaker understanding of the risks and benefits of their products, and here, conflicts of interest come into play. Recently, UCS examined how drug and medical device companies spent big to pressure Congress to relax conflict of interest standards at the FDA for the science advisory committees that evaluate new drugs and medical devices, among other things.

Fossil fuel funding and climate science

It’s no surprise that fossil fuel interests – and the front groups they support – have done a lot to support the handful of contrarian scientists who cast doubt on established facts about climate change. In some cases, they’ve paid for research. In other cases, they’ve paid for public platforms for contrarian scientists to espouse their views.

Dr. Willie Soon, an astrophysicist with the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics who has advanced hypotheses that the sun is causing climate change, is one such scientist. By one accounting, he’s received more than $1 million in industry support for his work.

One paper from Dr. Soon questioning recent global warming evidence was published due to a rogue scientific journal editor who circumvented the peer-review process. More recently, Dr. Soon co-authored a flawed paper about climate models in which he and his coauthors said they didn’t have any conflicts of interest to disclose. The Heartland Institute, an industry-funded group with a history of attacking mainstream climate scientists, paid for the paper to be made available online and promoted it to the media.

Climate activists subsequently complained that Dr. Soon should have disclosed his industry funding. Some were more aggressive, calling Dr. Soon a “scientist” (their air quotes) and calling for him to be fired from his position at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics due to a failure to disclose. But this is premature. A more reasonable first step would be to refrain from attacking the individual and to ask for an institutional review, an independent investigation, or an inquiry from the Smithsonian’s inspector general.

That’s how these kinds of situations are usually handled at academic and federal institutions. The University of Texas at Austin, for instance, went this route to deal with undisclosed conflicts of interest related to a controversial fracking study.

The freedom to be wrong, the freedom to know where the money comes from

Minnesota-based scientist and blogger Greg Laden explores some of these considerations, noting that scientist are entitled to be wrong and even “bone-headed.” Indeed, academic freedom includes the freedom to be wrong.

But this is about more than academic freedom–it’s about whether and how scientists should disclose conflicts of interest. Scientists should follow the disclosure rules of their institutions and the journals in which they publish, which in turn should reflect the best practices of relevant fields of study. Hopefully, the institution will look into this in a way that holds Dr. Soon accountable in a fair way.

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  • Connor Gibson

    Re Academic Freedom – Soon isn’t a professor. He’s not a climate scientist either. Your reasonable but misplaced consideration of Soon leaves mile-wide holes for the industry to exploit in order to install people like him at reputable organizations to push their PR campaigns. Let’s call Soon what he is – a hack, a paid lair. Evidence abound, including his emails conspiring to discredit Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports with ExxonMobil lobbyists:

    Here’s the AAUP’s definition of academic freedom, doesn’t mention protection of public relations agents who use the school as a guise of legitimacy.

    • Michael Halpern

      All scientists are entitled to a certain level of fairness and decorum, regardless of the status of the institution for which they work. And any allegations of impropriety should be dealt with through established institutional processes, not through a court of public opinion. If the institution is giving someone a platform that allows him or her to violate research ethics, then we should be pushing the institution to change its policies and practices. The focus on the individual is misplaced.

      • Connor Gibson

        What then when the Institution is failing to run such accountability? The public has no right to point out to that Smithsonian is failing to hold Willie Soon accountable for using their name to run PR campaigns – which are demonstrably, scientifically false – for fossil fuel companies like Koch, Southern and Exxon? And it’s not like this is new, he’s been doing this for over a decade. Should we sit tight and trust that Smithsonian will just go ahead and fix things? Is there something wrong with public accountability spurring the “institutional processes” you mention? Or do we blindly trust those processes to just happen on there own because the World magically makes things right?

        As an activist platform for scientists, who understandably don’t want politics polluting the arena of their profession, I assumed UCS would recognize the value of the court of public opinion in pushing negligent or nefarious actors into responding to a problem they are involved in.

        “Not in a court of public opinion” implies devaluing the very freedom of speech that I assume your plug for academic freedom is supposed to protect. Freedom of speech only for your members in particular? This coming from someone who agrees heartily with your member scientists and the mission of UCS!!!

        As for focusing on the individual – Soon knows he’s a liar. He has been publicly debunked over and over, Googling his name makes that clear. His emails conniving with Exxon’s lobbyists are out there for you and I to see. This is why I have no problem reminding him to his face that what he is doing is not acceptable, videos available on PolluterWatch.

      • Michael Halpern

        Thanks Collin. I certainly agree that the institution (indeed any institution) should be open to hearing public opinion. If the institution is failing to ensure its staff live up to its standards, it needs to be held accountable. I’m simply distinguishing between calling for the institution to do its job ensure its scientists disclose apparent conflicts and calling for dismissal of an individual. We can go after the institutions, and can certainly subject the actions of individuals to scrutiny, but we shouldn’t be judge and jury for the individual. The attention and pressure to investigate is best placed on the institution. It’s the method I disagree with, not the content.

      • Connor Gibson


      • Michael Halpern

        Apologies. And edited. Typing too fast!

  • Paul Thacker

    As I explained to Aaron Huertas in a separate venue, the matter of conflicts of interests and academic researchers were investigated and handled in a wide-ranging investigation that I led on the Senate Finance Committee. This work led to the first reforms of the Bayh-Dole Act including strengthening of COI at over 50 academic medical centers, passage of the Physician Payments Sunshine, and better disclosure policies at the NIH and NSF. It would be good to go back and review those documents on the Senate Finance Committee’s website and coverage in the media to better understand how the Committee’s work led to resignations at several institutions. Some of this I covered recently for the NEJM. https://hbr.org/2014/12/consumers-deserve-to-know-whos-funding-health-research

  • Andrew A Rosenberg

    Thank you Greg for your thoughtful comment. I certainly agree that it is properly an institutional matter to decide to employ a particular scientist. Frankly, even if most others in the field disagree with that scientists views, calling for dismissal seems to cross the line. The confusion in this case is the problem of not disclosing conflicts of interest, and the ethical issues that nondisclosure raises. Of course institutions should review such cases carefully and also do all they can to make the rules clearer for their scientists. And all of us need to be extra careful to disclose affiliations as well as funding sources that may give the appearance of conflict, even if an individual may fervently believe they are not conflicted.

    I may disagree with Dr. Soon’s work but don’t dispute his right to his views. But I do believe he and all of us need to be careful and our institutions need to take these matters very seriously. When in doubt disclose.

    Andrew A Rosenberg, Ph.D.
    Director, Center for Science and Democracy
    Union of Concerned Scientists

    • shindig

      The interesting thing with Soon is that his bosses HAVE been approached, written to, contacted for interview, and alerted to Soon’s failings.

      This not only includes his failure to disclose fossil fuel funders to his researchers, but also his failure to accurately describe his own credentials. They have chosen to look the other way. There have been many efforts to get them to respond. And they haven’t.

      There is possibly a wider issue here for the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CFA): the fact that Soon receives no University-funded salary – his salary is entirely dependent on the grants he brings in – as disclosed in the Boston Globe investigation on Soon in 2013. http://bit.ly/1yNKZjF

      And none of that money has been from anyone other than a fossil fuel industry company since around 2002. How should Soon, and indeed, the university, deal with this spectactular conflict of interest, given that most of Soon’s research attempts to link the Sun to global warming, or contest that polar bears are not threatened, etc.

      And here we have Soon again: publishing a study chock full of errors – in a new Chinese journal that perhaps doesn’t quite yet have the peer review rigour that is known in US science journals, where the peer review process would have rejected that paper.

      He uses his Harvard-Smithsonian credentials in that publication, and fails to disclose any fossil fuel funding. His co-author, Lord Monckton (that renowned climate scientist) protests that Soon doesn’t have to disclose the funding because he “did it in his own time.”

      But if it were done in his own time, why was he using CFA credentials? That is a question various people have been asking the CFA, which continues to obfuscate, duck and dodge.

      The CFA has managed to get Soon to drop his affiliation when speaking at Heartland Conferences, etc, so Soon now writes Op Eds in the Wall St journal claiming scientific expertise as a mercury and public health expert (none of which he has), when railing against Federal efforts to limit mercury emissions from coal plants.

      Should it be up to Greenpeace and FOIA to disclose Soon’s full funding structure?

      How transparent should the CFA be? Probably a lot more than it has been. Maybe it needs a specific incident to fire Soon, but it certainly needs to do something about this conflict of interest dating back more than a decade.

      • Thomas H. Pritchett

        In some ways this also identifies a conflict of interest for CFA. Dr. Soon is bringing in funding from special interest groups which not only pay for his salary entirely but also add to the general revenue of the institution (the administrative costs the institution tacks onto the grant). Therefore it is not financially in GFA’s best interest to take appropriate actions since doing so could lose that extra source of general revenue. The ultimate question for CFA, or any institution with this type of problem, is which is more important – maintaining a source of revenue or avoiding damaging one’s reputation as a scientific institution.

      • shindig

        Indeed it does. The CFA seems quite happy with Soon’s funding – so they don’t have to pay him themselves. At the very least they need to require him to disclose his funders. Their reputation is getting murkier by the minute.

  • I don’t understand the confusion we see in the discussion surrounding Soon and I have to guess that some of it is intentional. There are as you point out dramatically different issues here. One could question whether or not a certain scientist should be working at a particular institution, but that is entirely a matter for that institution to decide and negotiate depending on the nature of the job. In order to preserve academic freedom (in the sense the term was originally mean, not like some have used it recently) we accept the fact that there will be a range of quality, and even a few individuals for whom it is difficult to understand how they got hired to begin with.

    The second matter is the ethical one, and there, again, the institution is usually the first entity to “decide” and occasionally act. Although I appreciate the petition mentioned here (and signed it) I would have preferred to have it call for an investigation rather than firing. But, I decided to not let the perfect interfere with the good. The fact is that right now the administrators of HScA have in their hands a petition with over 20 thousand people asking for Soon’s firing. This won’t (and should not) cause them to fire him, per se. But the petition can certainly be invoked in a private conversation to make a point…