Institutional Conflict of Interest and Science Investigations

I have been watching the unfolding of the issues around the release of CRU climate emails and software. If we get past the political spin, and we move through the layer in which concerns might be raised about personal ethics, and the role that the press has or hasn’t played in furthering political objectives, we reach an area that is closer to home in the form of IP management of university research assets.

In the current situation universities have launched investigations. It remains to be seen how these institutions will manage their own substantial institutional conflicts of interest. There would appear to be, on the face of it, tremendous pressure not to find adversely for their own star faculty–and these investigators have to be regarded as “star” faculty in every sense of the word–massive government grants, flagship publications and leading centers of study, widespread influence, and positioned as primary authors of some of the most substantial policy documents science presently supports. I cannot imagine an institution being able to conduct such an inquiry, frankly. It is too political. They have too much, institutionally, to lose. There may be, in fact, no objective review to be had. There is only up or down, and a default presumption to start with, all of which, for public science is a losing proposition. If it is a default of innocence (in science), then what could possibly happen beyond a finding of a difference in judgment, or the untoward talk of scientists engaged in what they believe to be privileged, private communications? They may find that it appears worse than it really is, that things indicated were merely raised and not acted upon, that those that were acted upon were arguably within the realm of how these things go, even if not very nice, and the like.

If this is the upshot, then I have to believe that this whole affair is a serious rip in the fabric of public trust in the conduct of science. And it is most definitely not a matter of throwing some scientists under the bus as it were to preserve institutional reputation and appease a public bearing pitchforks. This will become a story about the failure of institutional systems to maintain the integrity of science. It will be about the nature of scientific controls that themselves are the foundation of that trust: peer-review, independent confirmation or disconfirmation, publication of dissenting views, open access to data and tools on which claims are based, retention of data and tools for those findings that become the subject of governmental policy. If these things fail, or even come under general doubt, then regardless of the findings with regard to any particular individuals–save them or damn them–it is the fabric of public science that is in play.

As it stands, universities appear asleep at the wheel. I saw a press release yesterday that appeared to have no idea of what was happening. The press release picks up the same politicized themes: any discussion of differences in the science is the result of “skeptics” who are outside the scientific community, when it is clear that there was a concerted effort within the scientific community to silence criticism rather than address it. It makes universities appear at the least uncritical, and at the worst in it up to their ears. As for the universities most directly involved at this point, their compliance officers appear to have failed in their duties. Scientific debate has been reduced on their watch to something ceremonial.

I am having trouble understanding how a university faced with such a situation can mount its own investigation. Just as with NASA’s commission on the Challenger, a university needs a Richard Feynman, a mind that is willing to rise above the fray and stand up for the intellectual honesty–and vulnerability–of science over appearances. A university needs a bunch of these. They do not have to be stars. But they have to be independent and committed to science, not to appearances.

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