Award Winning Blog

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Plausible Deniability and Its Role in Sponsored Research

            Readers of this blog know how much I detest sponsored research, particularly the undisclosed kind.  An even more pernicious strain discloses a sponsor in the form of a thank you note contained in a footnote, coupled with a disclaimer stating that policy prescription contained in the “research” results solely from the author.  Put another way, the author wants readers to believe that the financial sponsorship in no way affected the findings and recommendations of the work.

             This insistence on self-generated products, does not pass my smell test, even as sponsored researchers protest their innocence. They invoke what I call plausible deniability: the possibility exists that it just so happens that great minds think alike and both sponsor and sponsored researcher coincidentally share the same viewpoint without any collaboration.  Outsiders, including peer reviewers, have no way to confirm this assertion, so the possibility remains uncontested.

            Yesterday’s firing of open market researchers at the New America Foundation provides a case study on plausible deniability.  See  The researchers favored a position quite unfavorable to a major donor.  A senior executive at the donor contacts the foundation head to express dissatisfaction.  The foundation head shuts down the group.  Of course neither the donor, nor the donee ever acknowledge cause and effect.  NAF President Anne-Marie Slaughter attributes the firing to “repeated refusal [of Barry Lynn] to adhere to New America’s standards of openness and institutional collegiality.”  She adds—of course—that closing down the group had nothing to do with the content of it studies, etc.

             So what does “standards of openness and institutional collegiality” mean?

             I’m reading a classic book on writing that suggests the authors of words like these do not want readers to understand, or infer a single meaning.  See William Zinsser, On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction.  Such ambiguity provides a plausible conclusion that Mr. Lynn was a difficult person who made life miserable for all around him.  Another, perhaps more likely conclusion, points to the controversial nature of Mr. Lynn’s work, something Ms. Slaughter explicitly exempted from her consideration whether to fire him and his staff.

            It appears that Ms. Slaughter shut down a group that she believed might jeopardize a substantial flow of funding.  Pragmatics and expediency drove this decision even if nothing more than a generalized telephone call triggered the outcome.  If a major funder stays “jump,” grantee administrators respond with “How high?”

            I get this, but what I cannot accept is the window dressing that attempts to retain some notion of independence and nobility.  Remember the Golden Rule: “She who pays the gold, makes the rules.”