Disclosure versus prohibition

In the NYT, John Tierney looks at whether academic scientists should be ‘scored’ on terms of purity based on whether they have received corporate money or not.

Sure, money matters to everyone; the more fears that Dr. Pachauri and Mr. Gore stoke about climate change, the more money is liable to flow to them and the companies and institutions they are affiliated with. Given all the accusations they have made about the financial motives of climate change “deniers,” there is a certain justice in having their own finances investigated.

But I don’t doubt that Mr. Gore and Dr. Pachauri would be preaching against fossil fuels even if there were no money in it for them, just as I don’t doubt that skeptics would be opposing them for no pay. Why are journalists and ethics boards so quick to assume that money, particularly corporate money, is the first factor to look at when evaluating someone’s work?

He points to laziness — it is easy to point to conflict and assert this causes conclusions — and to snobbery — conclusions that are above “trade” are intrinsically better. The problem is that, in each case, this pressure leads to a prohibition (sometimes voluntary and sometimes mandatory) on the acceptance of corporate money. If all such money corrupts that might be justified but let’s face it, it is likely that the vast majority of corporate financed research is just as rigorous and dispassionate that research funded from other sources. This is something Derek Bok argued in a book (Universities in the Marketplace: The Commercialization of Higher Education) I read, recently.

Tierney suggested disclosure or transparency as an alternative:

Instead of stigmatizing certain kinds of research grants, perhaps we should consider the bigger picture. If scientists listed all their public and private donors on their Web pages, journalists could simply link to that page and let readers decide which ones are potentially corrupting. Instead of following rigid rules to report “conflicts,” journalists could use their judgment and report only the ones that seem relevant.

This is, of course, something that should definitely occur. However, I wonder if it will solve the problem. The stigma may still remain. What we need is some careful study to see whether the stigma has any basis and to consider why academic standards of peer-review may not be doing their job and ensuring quality regardless of source.

2 thoughts on “Disclosure versus prohibition”

  1. It was pretty disingenuous of Tierney, not to even mention the research which led to the policy he is criticising e.g.
    Relationship Between Conflicts of Interest and Research Results
    Lee S Friedman, BA1,2 and Elihu D Richter, MD, MPH2
    J Gen Intern Med. 2004 January; 19(1): 51–56.
    doi: 10.1111/j.1525-1497.2004.30617.x.

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