Is Mercenary Science, Science?

Inside Higher Ed is running a story that faculty members have been approached to serve as consultants to BP with regard to the oil spill. See here.

It’s pretty typical in consulting agreements that data rights, publication, and IP can be locked up for the consultant’s employer. If funding went through sponsored research, however, then a sponsor might be allowed pre-publication review (but not approval) and data would be made publicly available.

“You’re working for a side with a financial interest [either way],” he says. “The federal government is trying to maximize the damage assessment for obvious reasons, and the oil companies are trying to minimize it.”

“But there’s no doubt about it,” he adds. “You’re much more on the White Knight side if you’re with the feds, the aggrieved party.”

D’Elia says his preference would be for the federal government to provide a pool of money to scientists for the purposes of studying the spill’s impact. Absent that, research becomes part of a legal process — not necessarily a scientific one, D’Elia says.

The issue at the core is whether scientific practice can withstand the mercenary and personal pressures to be on one side or another of such a bi-polar issue. Add in a university or company claim to IP, and it’s pretty clear there is no neutral ground available–at least not without a lot of candor, respect, and discipline. It’s like being a referee in a World Cup match. If the referee takes sides, then it’s all up. And if there are no referees, what keeps it civil?

Regardless of who is paying–the feds or BP–it comes down to a huge potential for buying off the science. That is, taking money from either sponsor with a legal or political agenda makes things mercenary. One has to be really vigilant. It’s all too easy to game the data, the experimental set up, the interpretation of results.

More concern is that once the buying spree is done and there are government-sponsored faculty scientists and oil company-consulting faculty scientists, then what faculty researchers are left with a voice in the matter? Where are the scientists focused on science, not just on amassing and quantifying “data”? Science doesn’t exist in a vacuum, but also science is only as good as the candor with which it is done. That is, one can go through the motions of actions we would attribute to scientists–making observations, proposing hypotheses, collecting data, running analyses, using technical language, and relying on academic credentials–and it can still not be science.

In Against Method, a work that isn’t intended to be even handed about things, Paul Feyerabend argues that the separation of science and state is more vital than the separation of church and state. Yet in the United States at least government funding has come to dominate many areas of science, technology, and this unnamed activity that has many of the motions of science, but isn’t. Sort of a golem science. It may be such work serves a purpose. Clearly it serves a master. It may even seek to stand up to that master–and that may be a good thing, or not. But if we can’t tell–if mercenary science is just as good as any other–then what we need to ensure is that mercenary science isn’t the only science. And perhaps in key areas of policy, it should not even be the dominant form of science.

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