Conflicts of Interest: the appearance of impropriety

March 3, 2015

The nature of modern research has been changing slowly for the past thirty years. After World War II, when the emergence of big, government-funded science and scientific funding institutions propelled modern science and technology forward suddenly, the modern model of blue-sky, government-financed research beckoned a new generation of scientists to explore and explain the universe. Grand new machines could test grand new theories, and breakthroughs in empirical testing of deeper probes into the nature of reality have been methodically made. The past century has seen an explosion in scientific knowledge as a result. But while the model of state-financed basic research continues to dominate, the funds for that research have at times been threatened, and uncertainty by those who continue to rely upon government financing of basic science has pressured institutions such as universities and other research centers to alter the ways they seek financing, and to adopt new models.
In the 1980s, along with certain changes in the way that government-financed research royalties could be generated and shared, governments began to encourage the privatization of some of the financing of scientific research. Universities could become both developers of basic research (which often has no direct economic output or benefit beyond knowledge) and work in conjunction with the private sector to generate technologies and income for entrepreneurs, researchers, and universities alike. The model looks brilliant on its face, and seems to help create a virtuous circle in which eveyone benefits. But it is not without its pitfalls. 
Among these pitfalls is the fact that when focused on the notion of return on investment (ROI), as with any entrepreneurial enterprise most private-public partnerships are unlikely to generate an operating profit. Most ventures in the world of innovation outside of universities fail, after all. There is little reason to expect otherwise from cooperative ventures involving universities, institutions, and investors or entrepreneurs. Scientists who involve themselves with such partnerships must also be mindful of their specialties, and while some become entrepreneurs as well, the basic skills involves in scientific research vs. those necessary for running a successful, profit-making venture, tend not to overlap. Even more importantly, and central to this talk, is that the duties, virtues, rights, and responsibilities involved in science and those necessary for engaging in business ventures do not necessarily overlap.
The nature of the business world includes the necessity for profit, and the primary duties of someone running a business include, foremost, generating profits and increasing share price. The nature of science demands unfettered and unbiased curiosity, and freedom from pressures that might hinder investigation. Sometimes, pressures come from with academia and science, including pressures associated with careerism, promotion and jobs security, grant acquisition and publishing concerns. Academia alone harbors numerous pressures that sometimes help push scientists to commit fraud, as we have seen time and again. Concerns about scientific integrity are becoming ever more apparent and have helped to promote the teaching and oversight of academic integrity in universities for some time now. Add to that the potential complications that can arise when business interests combine with scientific and academic interests, and one has a recipe for potential disaster. 
Consider the recently reported controversy regarding Wei-Hock Soon, a climate scientist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. Soon has long been a well-published critic of the scientific consensus regarding the reality of anthropogenic global warming, and his papers and talks have earned him a following among political opponents of the AGW hypothesis and its related political and policy implications. Following a document release pursued by Greenpeace, using the US Freedom of Information law, it was revealed that Soon has received over $1 Million dollars from private industry sources in the course of his research, including from industries that have been political targets of policy changes which would be necessitated by the truth of AGW. Among the corporate grants that Soon received were funds from the American Petroleum Institute, Exxon Mobil, the Mobil Foundation, the Texaco Foundation, and the Electric Power Research institute.
It is of course entirely possible that the receipt of money from interests who are vested in undermining the AGW hypothesis had no role in helping Soon reach his conclusions (although he apparently referred to his articles as “deliverables” in emails with some of those funding sources). Conflicts of interest pose complicated problems to the integrity of scientific research often such that even the appearance of a potential for such a conflict may be enough to make the community of researchers question the results of a study. To many, Soon appears now to have been bought and paid for to sow doubt about AGW, and articles, studies, and others who have innocently depended upon his published results must look again at their reliance and wonder about the integrity of the studies in so relying upon Soon’s. Moreover, it appears that Soon violated conflicts of interest guidelines of at least some of the journals in which he was published as his funding may not have been properly reported to those journals who have such guidelines.
Scientists who fail to disclose their various interests as well as the sources of funding risk losing credibility, and ascases like this one become known, public confidence in the institutions of science suffer. Ultimately, we must be clear that our allegiance must be to science itself, setting aside our desires for fame, money, promotion, or other worldly goods. Science ought not to be for sale.