NDAs, COIs, witch hunts and dishonest brokers

A series of little things show just how tangled doing science can be getting.

First off, consider industry-standard non-disclosure agreements.  If you want, for instance, industry information on earthquake locations they have acquired or injection rates at wells or things of that nature, they want you to sign a non-disclosure agreement.  Part of the agreement is that you cannot disclose the existence of the agreement. So, one asks, if you publish a paper related to the fossil fuel industry in a journal that requires disclosure of a conflict of interest, what can you say? [Thankfully such NDAs cannot be signed by CU personnel, so there is not even the temptation to go that route here; this is probably true at most other schools].

Is this hypothetical? Probably not.  Consider Wei-Hock Soon at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, who is now in deep hot water over failing to disclose that he took money from the fossil-fuel industry for doing work and publishing it, listing the papers published as deliverables to the organizations in question as he neglected to mention that he was being paid by these companies for this work. Now it is quite possible that his work was unaffected by the money he received (the companies no doubt sought out somebody saying things they liked to hear), but you have to own up to that potential conflict. [It is money like this that makes a lie of the “climate scientists say there is climate change to get more money”–there is loads of money to not do this]. Did he perhaps accept the money and sign one of these NDAs? It will be interesting to see if any of these papers get retracted over this ethical failing. And somebody at Harvard-Smithsonian should be facing some very hard questions about how this could happen.

So is it a witch hunt for Congress to ask about possible conflicts like this? Roger Pielke Jr. here at CU says so. Given that we have already seen lying by at least one scientist about the source of his cash, it seems reasonable on the part of Congress to ask where the source of money for research is of people who, like Roger, testify in front of Congress.  This is in fact a direct outcome of the Soon brouhaha (as can be seen in the letter from Congressman Grijalva).  (Pielke complains that they want his correspondence but this is a bit exaggerated: the correspondence in question is in regard to funding and is not a blanket request for all his letters; it is unclear whether the university is required to accede to that request.) Roger feels insulted by such a request, as any of us would feel (which is fair; a more balanced investigation would make the same request of all witnesses before the committee, for instance). The problem is that somebody else who was called before Congress and presented their views was not as forthcoming, so the statements of many witnesses would presumably now seem tainted.  Pielke is understandably pissed off that he is being painted with the same broad brush.

Slippery slopes abound in this situation.  It is clear you can take oil money and do honest work (see Richard Muller’s history, as discussed on a previous post), so simply saying that you are dishonest if you take the money is an exaggeration.  Many times the money is there to investigate something the company is interested in, which is fine, but what we have seen (especially in medicine) is that NDAs allow companies to kill publication of results that they dislike, which is not defensible, and even hide that they even tried to get the research done. In contrast, when you deliberately hide such a relationship, as Soon appears to have done, you are admitting that this probably does mean your analysis was colored, whether or not you fell bound by the NDA. It makes those seeking advice want to know, who is being honest and playing fair?  This is true in medicine as well as climate studies. But now it means that the vast majority of the scientific community that does play fair and by the rules is subjected to scrutiny that does, as Pielke argues, discourage participation in public discussions.

Is there a lesson here?  Sure.  Don’t sign non-disclosure agreements. Period.


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