The Corruption of Scholarship

For many readers, Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren’s calling attention to a potential conflict of interest for a researcher associated with the Brookings Institution probably didn’t even register. But among those who cash in on supposed academic objectivity, it was very threatening–to their incomes (boldface mine):

Litan was introduced at the hearing as a Brookings fellow. And while his written testimony included a footnote disclosing the “support” he received from the Capital Group, nobody watching the event would have known that Litan was being paid by a financial firm with a stake in the outcome of the policy fight

In an email to HuffPost, Litan noted that Brookings didn’t seem to care much about the hearing during the three months between his testimony and the release of Warren’s letter. And he has told reporters that he wishes his critics would focus on the caliber of his work rather than its funding source.

The Beltway outrage directed at Warren for sending the letter, of course, has nothing to do with the quality of Litan’s research or his ability to publish it. The First Amendment has not been repealed. Nothing prevents Litan from doing all the industry-funded research he wants and letting the public evaluate its merits.

What Litan can no longer do, however, is capitalize on Brookings’ centrist, scholarly reputation when performing favors for flush corporate clients. This is a scary thing in the nation’s capital, where this sort of thing happens all the time. Corporate interests pay for a lot of economic studies that end up being used as lobbying cudgels. People in Washington are accustomed to cashing in on their reputations and those of prestigious institutions.

Just as you can’t be a soldier and a salesman, you can’t be a scholar and a salesman either.

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