Science Creates Another Storm For BP

July 29, 2010 Current Commentary Comments Off
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With its soon-to-be-ex-CEO set for exile to the neighborhood of Siberia, we might think things can only start getting better for BP on the public relations front. But let’s not be too hasty.

Cary Nelson, the head of the American Association of Professors, wants to sink the oil company’s reputation even deeper. He has accused BP of trying to buy the silence of scientists who are researching the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. The accusation has brought renewed public outrage, though the condemnation may be misplaced.

BP needs help — a lot of help — from marine scientists as it tries to cope with the huge Gulf spill and the long-term cleanup that will follow. The company says it has hired more than a dozen scientists thus far, but not all of the experts BP approached have been willing to come on board.

BBC News obtained a copy of the standard contract BP has been offering to researchers. The agreement prohibits the scientists from publishing, for up to three years, data they obtain while performing services for the company. The contract also bars scientists from conducting research on the spill for other entities, except with BP’s prior approval, if those services would “involve or conflict with your performance of BP […] Services.”

According to Nelson, these provisions amount to an attempt to pay off influential scientists, effectively bribing them to publish only information favorable to BP. “This is really one huge corporation trying to buy faculty silence in a comprehensive way,” Nelson said.

In an economy based on information, companies and employees are frequently required to tease out the layers of ownership for individual pieces of knowledge as small as a pollution measurement or as large as an article or a blueprint. Ownership does not always rest with the individual author or researcher. If a small business owner hires someone to research a certain topic or to draft an article, the employer owns the results of that work. No one would expect a designer for Apple’s newest toy to be allowed to submit his work to a technical blog or a professional journal without the parent company’s say-so. The results of the iPhone leak earlier this year demonstrated just how unhappy a company can be when it sees the information it owns splashed across the Web. So it should not be such a shock that BP, too, expects that the research it commissions will belong to it.

Because of this connection between money and control, scientists have a responsibility to think carefully about where and how they get their funding. Bob Shipp, the head of the department of marine sciences at the University of Alabama, fulfilled this obligation when he stiff-armed a BP offer to engage his entire department. Shipp said the company’s initial interest was strong, but when he and his colleagues laid out their demands, including transparency and retaining control of the data they generate, BP chose to look elsewhere.

The medical sector has long grappled with the ethics of corporate-funded research. Researchers are expected to be painstakingly honest about their funding. Some medical journals go so far as to require authors to disclose any contacts with companies or industries that might create a conflict of interest in their studies.

Triggered by a questionable industry-sponsored clinical trial of the drug rosiglitazone, the Journal of the American Medical Association recently published a strongly worded call for journals to hold studies to a rigorous standard of ethics and honesty, especially when patients’ safety is concerned. The maxim “do no harm” applies as much to research as to clinical practice, the Association asserted, reminding physicians that they can do tangible harm to patients by allowing conflicts of interest to influence their presentation of data.

Taking corporate funding is not, in itself, unethical. Academics can, with clear conscience, either accept restrictions on publication contingent upon their funding or, if they are free to publish, explicitly disclose the sources that paid for their research. Ethical problems crop up when researchers accept corporate money, and the restrictions that go with it, and then fail to disclose those funding sources and restrictions.

As for BP hiring the whole department of marine sciences at Alabama, the final call is the university’s. Though in general it seems like a poor idea to let commercial interests sway an entire department, it is up to the school to make a policy establishing specific guidelines. In the meantime, Shipp and his colleagues were right to clearly state their requirements, and BP did nothing wrong by choosing to walk away.

This incident raises the larger question of who should pay for research done on the public’s behalf. Those who object to BP’s restrictions on its contractors are doing so largely out of a sense that the public deserves to control and direct, or at least to have unfettered access to, the major studies of the spill and its consequences.

It is unreasonable to expect a corporation like BP, or IBM or Novartis, to finance unbiased research for the public good. That is not why they are in business. Non-profits and charitable organizations can pick up the slack, though they often have their own agendas as well. Individual citizens also could provide the backing, though something on the scale of the BP spill would be a lot for solo researchers or their patrons to tackle.

In the end, if the pubic wants unbiased research, the public will need to pay for it. Criticizing big companies like BP for keeping their science to themselves won’t achieve much. Instead, the public needs to focus on finding ways to make sure that scientists who are qualified to investigate something like the Gulf spill have the resources to do so.

In the meantime, we should insist that disinterested parties review key findings before we use corporate research to make major public policy decisions. Such healthy skepticism can keep science moving forward, no matter who foots the bill.


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