Sunday, February 22, 2015

A Foolproof Toolkit for Hiding Sponsored Research

      Today’s New York Times has a front page story reporting on how a reliably anti-climate change researcher failed to disclose substantial financial support from electric utilities and their advocacy groups. 

     The Times identified a direct link between funder and researcher coupled with an explicit quid pro quo: the delivery of peer-reviewable, academic papers absolving humans of any role in climate change in exchange for money.  How could the Times find a “smoking gun” when hundreds of millions get funneled into sponsored research in telecommunications and Internet policy and other areas?

     The answer lies in the combination of two factors easily addressed and remedied by just about every other sponsored researcher.  His contract for service specified work for hire instead of general financial support for the “mission” of an institute, center, or foundation.  Additionally he worked for a federal government organization—not a University—having a duty to comply with generally avoidable Freedom of Information disclosure requirements.

     Rather than consider the Times piece a marvelous piece of journalistic sleuthing, I marvel at the failure of the researcher to use readily available tools to avoid detection.  So in the spirit that “sunlight is the best disinfectant,” I offer the following toolkit that identifies how easy a sponsored researcher can cover her tracks.

      1)         Create, or affiliate with an institute, center, or foundation having a vague “mission” that can provide cover for both researchers and sponsors.  Who could have a problem with promoting a better functioning marketplace, more innovation and extra competition?  You don’t have to disclose the intent to help the Koch brothers emasculate the EPA and in turn earn more billions.

     2)         Exploit plausible deniability, i.e., the sheer “coincidence” that financial underwriter and researcher happen upon identical interests without direct—and forensically identifiable—consultation.  Never create a specific contract deliverable specifying the content of a publication.  Financial benefactors understand the need for ambiguity and willingly will pay vast sums to support what can appear as benign academic support.

     3)         Disclose financial support in a single ambiguous sentence.  Sponsored researchers only need to add a footnote “gratefully acknowledging financial support from the Institute for the Study of Solar Flux Density.” Nothing in this sentence implies that the researcher has abandoned academic freedom and independence in exchange for money.

     4)         Build “your brand,” reputation and expertise with available funding.  Sponsored researchers can flood the “marketplace of ideas” without voluminous work made possible by having funds to hire staff.  There are plenty of groups having dozens of researchers available to generate work product, while people like me are lucky to have a single graduate student assistant.  The volume of sponsored research available for placement in academic journals can easily crowd out the work of unsponsored researchers.

     High productivity coupled with cheerleading by sponsors makes it possible that certain professors and institute “Fellows” can enhance their visibility and in turn their available to provide background and provocative media quotes.  The network neutrality debate has created a cottage industry of experts known for where they lie on a pro/con continuum.  The New York Times may support an “open Internet,” but articles surely will contain a quote from some expert in the anti-network neutrality camp who has achieved visibility through sponsored research, disclosed or not.

     Sponsored research has a profound and pernicious effect on public policy debates.  In a nutshell blatant advocacy becomes wrapped in the legitimacy of research.  Few seem to know or care that the research has a champion, and that the work product would not pass muster under blind peer review even with financial disclosure.

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