BP, Scientists, and Gag Agreements

Last week, I wrote about a column by biologist Marc Lipsitch, who described a conflict of interest for scientists that has not been discussed: gag agreements for scientists who accept industry funding. In other words, if the corporate funder doesn’t like the results, nobody will hear about them. These agreements also present other problems, such as reviewing grant proposals or receiving federal funding, as the scientist will have access to information that is unknown and undiscussed*.
Well (pun intended), BP appears to have tried this strategy too (italics mine):

BP has been trying to hire marine scientists from universities around the Gulf Coast in an apparent move to bolster the company’s legal defense against anticipated lawsuits related to the Gulf oil spill, according to a report from The Press-Register in Mobile, Ala.
Scientists from Louisiana State University, Mississippi State University and Texas A&M have reportedly accepted BP’s offer, according to the paper….
Robert Wiygul, an Ocean Springs lawyer who specializes in environmental law, said BP is in effect denying the government access to valuable information by hiring the scientists and adding them to its legal team. “It also buys silence,” Wiygul told the Press-Register, “thanks to confidentiality clauses in the contracts.”
Scientists who sign the contract to work for BP will be subject to a strict confidentiality agreement. They will be barred from publishing, sharing or even speaking about data they collected for at least three years.
George Crozier, director of the Dauphin Island Sea Lab, who was approached by BP, told the paper: “It makes me feel like they were more interested in making sure we couldn’t testify against them than in having us testify for them.”
BP even tried to hire the entire marine sciences department at the University of South Alabama, according to the report. Bob Shipp, the head of the department, said he declined the offer because of the confidentiality clause.

Since these researchers from Louisiana State University, Mississippi State University and Texas A&M will not be able to discuss their data, all the work they do and anything they publicly state simply can’t be given credence. To the extent these universities are about scholarship, this is a serious violation of that mission. And the article highlights the need for all universities to address gag agreements:

But according to the Press-Register, Shipp can’t prevent his colleagues from signing on with BP because staff members are allowed to do outside consultation for up to eight hours a week.
“More than one scientist interviewed by the Press-Register described being offered $250 an hour through BP lawyers,” the article said. “At eight hours a week, that amounts to $104,000 a year.”

Ultimately this stems from:

the lack of recognition that you can’t have it all. Sometimes you have to make choices, and those choices confer benefits and costs. If you want a job where your ideas and contributions are taken seriously because you don’t have a hidden agenda (good work if you can get it), then there are certain things you can’t do.

Shame on these scientists. And the NRDC is right: the research funds should be administered by the National Academy of Sciences. But then we would have to be rude and uncivil to BP, and the Obama Administration just didn’t have the guts to do that.
*Thinking about this issue some more, it seems that an unscrupulous person could write a proposal for work that they have already done, and receive funding. This wastes money and takes funding away from other projects.

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3 Responses to BP, Scientists, and Gag Agreements

  1. Thomas says:

    Well, security on universities can be notoriously bad. What if someone just happens to hack into the computers of these scientists and publish the data on wikileaks…

  2. Eric says:

    “the research funds should be administered by the National Academy of Sciences.”
    It would be a sad day for America, and freedom in general, if any entity were barred from hiring a technical expert to consult on a technical matter.

  3. scott says:

    I didn’t know MSU had signed but some have at my alma mater, Univ. of Southern Miss. I’m pretty chapped.

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