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Interest and conflict

Ted Nield as MCresized.jpg‘Follow the money’.  Every investigator, in journalism or policing, knows the truth of this worldly wisdom.  But, if it can be assumed that ‘he who pays the piper calls the tune’, what of scientific research?  The answer is – ‘it depends’.

If research is commercially or politically useless, then nobody is likely to mind who paid for it.  Nobody suspects shady dealing if Mr Carnegie sponsors palaeontologists to research a brontosaur’s intercostal clavicle.  But where science impacts on public policy, and public policy impacts upon the trades, then suspicion is rightly aroused. 

Biomedical researchers have been well aware of this for some time, and as early as 1978 developed elaborate systems requiring authors to complete comprehensive disclosure forms detailing who supports their work.  Universities – especially those with medical schools, because of the involvement of human beings and the power of the pharmaceutical industry – now routinely expect researchers to declare their funders.

In geosciences, the problem was highlighted by the activities of Willie Soon, a solar physicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, and by the fate that recently befell hydrologist Donald Siegel (Syracuse University, New York).  Soon, a ‘global warming sceptic’, failed to disclose in a 2010 paper on climate-change policy, that he was funded from Southern Company - an electricity provider in Atlanta, Georgia, which has lobbied against emissions limits.  This was not his only transgression.

Siegel was heavily criticised earlier this year for a study showing that fracking did not contaminate groundwater.  Good news – but, alas, he had failed to disclose that an Oklahoma energy company had paid him, and provided the samples.  In his defence, Siegel has said he thought the link was obvious from the paper and hardly needed explicit disclosure - but admits to having been naïve.

Guilt by association can hardly be avoided.  The only real way to become expert in an applied science is to have worked in it, but your views will thereafter be forever tainted in the eyes of zealots.  Radioactive waste management provides a case in point.  Publishers clearly need disclosure policies (the Society is currently working on one).  Yet, as with scientific fraud, if authors choose to lie, no amount of form-filling will do any good.

Earth science researchers can perhaps take grim comfort from the fact that the spotlight of suspicion has now fallen upon them.  After all, it means that the world has woken to the fact that geological research is important enough that various moneybags may wish to pervert it.

DR TED NIELD, EDITOR , @TedNield @geoscientistmag