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

February 3, 2015
Michael Halpern
Former contributor

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.