Wednesday, 21 July 2010

Firewalls in consulting

In an excellent piece of reporting, Inside Higher Ed examines BP's efforts to contract some academics to help in damage assessment from the Gulf oil spill.
As an assistant professor of coastal sciences at the University of Southern Mississippi, Griffit says he’s been eager to assist in the restoration efforts taking shape in the region. So when lawyers representing BP came to Griffit with an offer -- help us assess the damage and find a way to restore what’s been destroyed -- Griffit says the option was “initially very attractive” to him and some of his colleagues.

“If we were on the inside, we knew we could have some effect on BP,” says Griffit, who is stationed at the university’s Gulf Coast Research Laboratory, in Ocean Springs, Miss. “And after talking with some of the lawyers involved, we all saw it was a nice idea.”

Griffit now thinks he was perhaps a bit “na├»ve.” After a single three-hour meeting with BP representatives several weeks ago, Griffit and several other professors resigned from consulting positions they’d held only briefly. The faculty members began feeling anxious about the appearance of siding with BP, particularly when company officials mentioned that the professors would probably be called to testify on the company’s behalf as lawsuits inevitably unfold.

“We’re all employees of the state of Mississippi, and none of us really felt comfortable about testifying on the other side -- even if what we said was scientifically accurate,” Griffit says.
This isn't good. Faculty shouldn't feel constrained against taking any line of research, and especially shouldn't feel constrained against acting as expert witness against the state. Think any of them would have felt this constraint if serving as expert witness for anti-tobacco groups against inadequate tobacco regulation?

But BP hasn't helped itself. Anybody taking on this kind of work would have to insist on very strict firewalls between the funder and the researchers: they give the money, the researchers go where the science takes them and have full freedom to publish all data and results. This kind of arrangement ought to be in both parties' interest: why would anybody believe anything that's funded by someone with an interest in the outcome unless those kinds of firewalls were in place? But, instead, BP had some nasty confidentiality provisions in their contracts:
News of BP’s efforts to secure the consulting services of university faculty spread rapidly over the weekend, following a report in the Press-Register of Mobile, Ala., that provided details from contracts being offered to scientists. The newspaper said it obtained a copy of such a contract, noting that the agreement restricted consultants from discussing or publishing their research for at least the next three years.

At a time when many have already accused BP of low-balling or playing down the extent of the oil spill’s impact, many denounced the notion of professors gathering potentially damaging data for the company and letting BP sit on it for years.
This then makes it a one-way bet for BP. Good results get published, bad results are buried. And so,
A number of professors have backed out of their agreements with BP in recent weeks, even before the Press-Register’s article appeared, several administrators told Inside Higher Ed Monday. The reasons vary from ethical concerns about restrictions on the publication of data to the stark realization that BP’s demands on faculty time for a project of this magnitude are simply more than a working professor can offer in good faith.
Yup. I wouldn't sign on for anything that looked like it would provide that kind of one-way bet either. But, it's not just industry that can distort results - always watch for one-sided skepticism. Again, from the Inside Higher Ed piece:
But Chris D’Elia, dean of Louisiana State University’s School of Coast and Environment, says it’s an oversimplification to see work with BP as the only potential conflict for faculty responding to the oil spill. Federal agencies are also seeking out LSU faculty, and they have a vested interest in research that will raise the price tag on the clean-up, D’Elia said.

“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.”
And, working for the dark side has its price:
William E. Hawkins, director of Southern Mississippi’s Gulf Coast Research Laboratory, says professors courted by the company began hearing from colleagues that teaming up with BP might affect their future ability to secure federal and state grants. Would a scientist who provided data to BP in this instance lose credibility for future spill research funding from government agencies?

“I think everybody’s kind of feeling their way through this, and I think our researchers believed it would be better for their careers that they have access to the funding that would come through the public,” Hawkins says.
Government is the giant gorilla for research funding everywhere in the world. Doing the wrong kind of work can dry out that funding source, or even get you blacklisted. Again, beware the one-sided skepticism.

BP shot itself in the foot by requiring contracts that honest academics would have a hard time signing. What happened when the University of South Alabama suggested more reasonable contractual conditions?
Crozier did, however, attend a meeting between South Alabama officials and lawyers representing BP. The university laid out strict parameters for any potential partnership, including complete control over the use of data collected by faculty. They’ve not heard back from BP since.
Nobody comes out of this looking good. Academics work in a climate where, even if they were protected by contractual firewalls against BP influencing their work, they'd still be tagged as the "BP Guy" and have problems in getting federal funding for other work; government research grants are where the big money tends to be. And BP set up contracts that would make non-credible the work done by the academics signing on. Disappointing all around.

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