Tuesday, July 20, 2010

BP and the government threaten academic independence

The Mobile Press-Register has a thought-provoking editorial in the Tuesday, July 20, 2010 edition, in which it raises the important issue of maintaining academic independence--and by extension, the integrity of science.

We can't clean the Gulf of Mexico effectively unless we study it. And we can't study it effectively if BP hoards the science.

That's what it appears the company is trying to do by recruiting prominent scientists along the coast, offering them signing bonuses and lucrative pay in return for what amounts to silence on the data they collect.
As various scientists are snapped up -- including some already at Southern Miss, Louisiana State University and Texas A&M -- fewer of them will be able to work with federal agencies on anything in their field without a conflict of interest. USA's Bob Shipp deserves credit for rebuffing BP's offer. "There was no way we would agree to any kind of restrictions on the data we collect," he said.

If enough of the region's prominent scientists are muzzled, then so is the science. Now it's up to BP to explain how that's in the best interest of the Gulf of Mexico.

Yes, Dr. Bob does deserve credit for turning the oil giant away.  But the Press-Register editorial neglects an important point:  Bob Shipp chairs the National Marine Fisheries Gulf Management Council. NMFS is a NOAA agency, and hands out millions in grants to researchers each year.  The University of South Alabama gets its share of those, as do the other research institutions along the Gulf Coast. For all intents and purposes, he already has a conflict of interest and would likely have been proscribed from working for BP by some arcane, deeply buried language in the grant agreement.  He's already heavily involved with federally funded fisheries research, and by all accounts, Dr. Bob is doing stellar work for that group and steadily improving the public's knowledge of the gulf fisheries that support the livelihoods and recreational opportunities of millions of people living on the Gulf Coast.  He's a pillar of the Gulf Coast's scientific community and his integrity is beyond reproach.

The Press-Register's editorial comes in the wake of Ben Raines' investigative story that uncovered BP's efforts to corral scientists in advance of the coming legal war.  That decades long fight will be between the government and the oil company responsible for the Deepwater Horizon explosion, fire, death of 11 men and the ensuing multi-million barrel spill from the Macondo well the rig was in the process of capping on the night of April 20. It will determine liability and billions of dollars are at stake.

Buried in Raines' story were these interesting paragraphs:

A scientist who spoke to the Press-Register on condition of anonymity because he feared harming relationships with colleagues and government officials said he rejected a BP contract offer and was subsequently approached by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration with a research grant offer.

He said the first question the federal agency asked was, "'is there a conflict of interest,' meaning, 'are you under contract with BP?'"

Other scientists told the newspaper that colleagues who signed on with BP have since been informed by federal officials that they will lose government funding for ongoing research efforts unrelated to the spill.

NOAA officials did not answer requests for comment. The agency also did not respond to a request for the contracts that it offers scientists receiving federal grants. Several scientists said the NOAA contract was nearly as restrictive as the BP version.

The state of Alaska published a 293-page report on the NRDA process after the Exxon Valdez disaster. A section of the report titled "NRDA Secrecy" discusses anger among scientists who received federal grants over "the non-disclosure form each researcher had signed as a prerequisite to funding."

It's pretty clear that the government is playing hardball, too. In fact, it looks like the government is well-practiced in the tactic, forcing scientists to sign non-disclosure agreements that--I'm willing to bet--look an awful lot like the ones BP was asking Gulf scientists to sign last week.

I find it disappointing that the Press-Register's editorial board decided not to address the government's attempts to do virtually the same thing as BP. 

BP's attempts to buy and silence scientists should be dragged out into the light of day, where sunshine can properly disinfect the slime and maintain public trust in the scientific analyses, data and conclusions the scientists will ultimately produce in the wake of this disaster. But that coin needs to be flipped, so that the government's own attempts to control the research can be properly scrutinized and disinfected.

If you think the government is going to do any better at ensuring the integrity and trustworthiness of post-Macondo research, look back not only to the NRDA Secrecy disaster of Valdez, but look also at the so-called "ClimateGate Scandal," where at least one prominent climate scientist was all but bribed by the government.  Climate scientists who support the government's position on climate change get funded.  Climate scientists who question or doubt the government's position seek funding from...  other sources.

At risk is the very integrity of science itself.  If people are unwilling to trust the research because those paying for it have an agenda, then the honesty of the debate is in question as well as the integrity of the data, the conclusions and the analytical methods.  Wrong decisions can get made, with results even more drastic than the problem they're attempting to solve. The dark cloud of  "conflict of interest" needs to be removed.  Science needs to be funded without respect to agenda, so that the public interest is served, not ideological agendas, policy goals or to wrongfully avoid liability.  If government or the private sector wish to fund scientific research, so be it.  But remove the non-disclosure agreements and fund the public university research so that the public interest is served.

I should also note that private sector funding of scientific research is not necessarily a bad thing.  Without it, we wouldn't have Intel, Apple, AT&T or the myriad of other technology-for-profit marvels.

Gimme some feedback in the comments.


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