Academics Disclose Your Conflicts

To debut on October 8, Inside Job, promises to chronicle the origins and response to the financial crisis by the power elite, especially bankers but others included. Some media reports say it will target academics in particular, highlighting the likes of Larry Summers, who, along with people like Rob Rubin, ride the gravy train between Boston, New York, and Washington. 

Only the naive think professors are public-regarding altruists, the hyping of the documentary suggests; they bring down big consulting fees and lucrative book deals, just as bankers and politicos do.  This is nonsense.  True, among a small handful of professors in certain fields–law, medicine, finance–people who double as scholar/teachers generate consulting income of many millions of dollars annually. 

But for the overwhelming majority, even the most prominent, consulting income doesn’t even double basic salaries and royalty income.  This isn’t to say professors aren’t among the best paid and well off in the country–they are.  But a few dozen aside, they aren’t in the rarified top measured in money. 

That said, it’s appalling that some academics, whether getting super- or only moderately-rich, don’t disclose their interests in published research.  Though recent reports concentrate on professors of medicine, the deception occurs in other fields too, including law.  That’s a serious problem for the academic profession, whose value to society includes the unusual capacity to contribute something that’s both informed and independent.

True, most universities, including mine, require professors to make requisite internal disclosures of any potential conflicts.  But everyone needs to know about potential conflicts, including both the general public and, especially, other scholars writing in the same field.

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3 Responses

  1. I couldn’t agree more. But the fact that universities require such disclosures as you mention and that transparency with regard to such possible conflicts is no doubt desirable could be said, in the end, only serve to obscure or deflect attention from the role of universities themselves in facilitating if not encouraging conflicts of interest, indeed, of both a more egregious and insidious sort. After all, these universities do far more than structurally mimic the modern corporation (and they are in some legal sense, corporations proper): they’ve become enslaved to many of the same market imperatives. This is owing largely to what John Ziman has characterized as the conditions of “post-academic” science (which I’ve mentioned at this blog before). This post-industrial science is governed by norms described as “Proprietary, Local, Authoritarian, Commissioned, and Expert” (the Mertonian norms of an earlier era being Communalism, Universalism, Disinterestedness, Originality, and Scepticism, or ‘CUDOS’). This post-academic and post-industrial science is more directly involved in “wealth-creation,” for it is

    “under pressure to give more obvious value for money. Many features of the new mode of knowledge production have arisen ‘in the context of application’—that is, in the course of research on technological, environmental, medical or societal problems. More generally, science is being pressed into the service of the nation as the driving force in the national R & D system, a wealth-creating techno-scientific motor for the whole economy.”

    In other words, utility and market imperatives fuel the ethos and practice of contemporary science to a degree unprecedented in the history of science. As Richard C. Lewontin notes in Biology as Ideology: The Doctrine of DNA (1991), science is “guided by and directed by those forces in the world that have control over money and time.” Symptomatic of such control is Lewontin’s anecdotal observation that “No prominent molecular biologist of my acquaintance is without a financial stake in the biotechnology business.” Ziman explains how deeply this new ethos has been inscribed in the practice of scientific research:

    “…[A]s researchers become more dependent on project grants, the ‘Matthew Effect’ is enhanced. Competition for real money takes precedence over competition for scientific credibility as the driving force of science. With so many researchers relying completely on research grants or contracts for their personal livelihood, winning these become an end in itself. Research groups are transformed into small business enterprises. The metaphorical forum of scientific opinion is turned into an actual market in research sciences.”

    Ziman provides us with a bounty of reasons for thinking deeply about the vulnerability of (both natural and social) scientists to “the demands of their paymasters,” be they of private provenance or the product of the State’s science policy.

    For some background reading, I recommend the late Bill Readings’ The University in Ruins (1996), Noam Chomsky, et al., The Cold War & The University: Toward an Intellectual History of the Postwar Years (1997), and Christopher Simpson, ed., Universities and Empire: Money and Politics in the Social Sciences during the Cold War (1998).

  2. Full disclosure: Lest the fact that I teach at a community college (and only part-time at that) be invoked as a presumptive reason for a charge of sour grapes: I chose not to pursue a conventional academic career and am perfectly content with that decision, although I admit, on occasion, to envying the income, resources, and sabbaticals of my counterparts at these institutions!

  3. Legal Academic & Consultant says:

    FWIW, there are a lot of legal academics getting a lot of money from industries.

    And it’s not the top academics. It’s often the ones you don’t pay attention to because they are at 2nd or 3rd tier schools. They can get a lot of sponsored projects and consulting because they are attuned to political issues, and their 2nd tier status is not apparent to Congress. Think GMU.

    Ever catch this article?
    http://www.boston.com/business/articles/2007/04/05/academics_pr_work_raises_eyebrows/