By Adam Frank
Just a quick post to point out an interesting piece by John Tierney over at the NYT on research sponsorship, corporate or otherwise. Scientists enjoy a respect and trust in the culture that outpaces many other fields. Much of this trust comes from their perceived impartiality with respect to the results of their research. When the science enters the contentious domain of politics and public policy, as it has with studies of Climate Change, that trust has been put to the test.
Challenges to scientific results often come by "following the money". If a climate naysayer is funded by Big Oil or if a mainstream climate scientist is funded by a green energy company then proponents of either side feel compelled to call foul.
Tierney calls this a shortsighted strategy
Conflict-of-interest accusations have become the simplest strategy for avoiding a substantive debate. The growing obsession with following the money too often leads to nothing but cheap ad hominem attacks.
Later he calls out journalists, in particular, for pursuing this strategy
Instead of stigmatizing certain kinds of research grants, perhaps we should consider the bigger picture. If scientists listed all their public and private donors on their Web pages, journalists could simply link to that page and let readers decide which ones are potentially corrupting. Instead of following rigid rules to report "conflicts," journalists could use their judgment and report only the ones that seem relevant.
I will agree with this up a point. In the end it is true that we have to follow the science not the money. But when a position (like the Climate skeptics) which stands so contrary to the prevailing scientific consensus (and data!) gets huge media/political play - and is trumped as a firm refutation of that consensus - then you have to wonder who is paying for the show.