14 March 2015

National Academy of Sciences on Financial Disclosure

In 2014, the Institute of Medicine C-123 Agent Orange committee had a presentation by a scientist who did not offer information about his $600,000 consulting contract with the Department of Veterans Affairs. Both he, and the Department, opposed C-123 veterans' arguments as to Agent Orange exposure aboard the former Agent Orange transports.

Because the VA proposed the question to the Institute of Medicine, it was improper for it to advocate a particular finding by the IOM. The consultant explained, in his preface to comments to the committee, that he was not there to represent the VA but to explain the science behind the VA's perspective on C-123 Agent Orange exposures. However, never did he discuss his unusual historical involvement with the VA and the US Air Force, and the C-123 veterans, including his personal role in 2009 recommending destruction of those aircraft.

At the time of the IOM meeting, it seems only VA was aware of the consultant's unusual no-bid, sole-source contract addressing post-Vietnam herbicide concerns. Later, the committee was informed that the scientist had a consulting relationship with the VA, and at some point after that, the amount of the contract was also made known to the committee by IOM staff.

Veterans and others presented IOM their financial statements; even the authors of papers sponsored by Dow and Monsanto met this fundamental ethical obligation. But not the VA consultant. The VA took no action, even though it had several representatives at the IOM hearing well-aware of the issue.

This writer is no scientist, and the nuances of this profession's ethical considerations are unfamiliar. Perhaps the consultant and VA were perfectly proper in the IOM presentation. It is hard, however, to find any positive spin to put on this: VA paid a lot of money to oppose veterans' Agent Orange exposure claims, and failed to reveal anything about this. Most of the work product of the consultant's contract was submitted in opposition to the veteran's claims, and nothing that was helpful...his view was quite clear and only information supporting that view was offered, a view he has espoused for decades.

This would be acceptable in a high school debate, but not as the National Academy of Sciences tried to address the health concerns of thousands of veterans.

In addition to tremendous amounts of its staff resources, VA spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to oppose the veterans. Not a penny was permitted to support the veterans' presentation to the IOM in which we argued that we'd been exposed Thus, VA presented its policy to the IOM, not an even-handed scientific analysis.

The VA was hardly neutral and should not have posed this question to the IOM with their ill-disguised objective of using IOM to obstruct veterans' exposure claims. VA selected only materials, reports, opinions and other materials for the IOM which argued against the veterans, withholding everything helpful to the veterans' cause. The only materials supporting the veterans' perspective were submitted by the veterans, by unpaid concerned scientists and physicians, or obtained by the IOM itself.

VA showed it was not seeking an objective examination of the C-123 Agent Orange exposure claims. Veterans were entitled to advocate the basis of their situation, but VA was supposed to be not only objective, but pro-veteran, and seek a clean scientific analysis through IOM of the issue. VA failed.

On March 8, 2015, the president of the National Academy of Sciences addressed the issue of financial disclosure and the importance in science that that ethical requirement plays. Although the particulars of his address dealt with climate change, the fundamental ethical problem is identical to the C-123 Agent Orange meeting:

By National Academy of Sciences President Ralph J. Cicerone
     March 6, 2015
The methods, motives, and results of scientists come under special scrutiny when
societal or economic matters are involved, for example, in cases involving medicine and health, governmental policies and regulations, and commercial applications.  Recently, two new examples have arisen, both involving the science of climate change and societal responses to it.  
One case involves allegations of failure to disclose financial interests and research support from corporate interests on the part of a researcher at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics who testifies on behalf of organizations that discount the role of human activity in global climate change.  The other consists of requests to seven universities by Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.) for the names of funding sources for a group of scientists and policy analysts who have publicly disputed widely accepted scientific findings about the causes of climate change and the value of public responses to it.  An earlier Congressman’s request for professional and personal materials should also be remembered. 
These incidents and prior ones show that scientists must disclose their sources of financial support to continue to enjoy societal trust and the respect of fellow scientists, while also maintaining high standards in the enterprise of science. 
Disclosure of financial information and interests is required when papers are submitted to journals for publication in many fields of science (see, for example, instructions to authors of PNAS papers).  Researchers must also submit similar disclosures to responsible administrators at research universities and institutions, as is often required for legislative testimony.  Disclosures of sources of research support can also be foreseen for some newspaper opinion pieces. 
Failure to file adequate disclosures can be expected to lead to an escalation of demands from interest groups and legislative bodies.  Such demands can expand to include largely unrelated documents such as all financial records, e-mails, and draft versions of authored documents, like those requested by Rep. Grijalva.  Further, when legal instruments such as public record acts and freedom-of-information acts are stretched beyond their reasonable limits, great costs to institutions and individuals can ensue.   
Public universities can be especially vulnerable in this regard.  Indeed, in one such climate-related case, the National Academy of Sciences joined an amicus brief on behalf of the University of Virginia to support the university’s case because it had responded to meaningful requests, while declining to satisfy requests for unpublished research data and working papers.  NAS’s action was aimed at resisting excessive demands on scientists and public universities, not on the science of climate change. 
Full and responsible disclosures to research institutions and to journals by individuals will help the institutions, journals, and individual scientists to do their jobs.  They will also address reasonable questions that the public may have about who has funded the science.  Such disclosures can help to prevent the further escalation of divisive political actions surrounding any scientific research, whether climate change, genetically engineered crops, or vaccinations against childhood diseases

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