Is CRI science being twisted to commercial ends?

UPDATED: We all know that our Crown Research Institutes carry out a lot of commercial work for clients, in fact they are encouraged to do so in the interests of returning a dividend to the Crown which funds them.

But are those commercial relationships influencing the scientific advice that scientists give?

Back in April, Massey University freshwater scientist Dr Mike Joy claimed this was exactly what was happening in an explosive Science Express talk at Te Papa. Well, it was explosive because I live-tweeted the talk, including some of Dr Joy’s remarks, which attracted a lot of discussion on Twitter. A few of Dr Joy’s tweets:

This morning Radio New Zealand’s science reporter William Ray had a story about that approach to the Royal Society of New Zealand, which hosts the Science Media Centre which I manage. I’ve had nothing to do with internal discussions of the issue, but the radio report revealed that two letters have been written to the RSNZ by Wendy Pond of the Manu Waiata Trust and Bryce Johnson, chief executive of Fish & Game. The letter from the former apparently claims CRI science has been slanted towards the commercial interests of clients, with NIWA singled out for specific mention. The letter from the latter calls on the Royal Society to take a lead in exploring how conflicts of interest can best be handled in the context of giving expert advice.

UPDATE: See bottom for the letter from Bryce Johnson to the Royal Society of New Zealand, which was obtained under the Official Information Act.

At the heart of the issue, is scientific advice given over the environmental impact of the Ruataniwha Dam, a controversial irrigation project in the Hawkes Bay that is looking shaky after several major backers withdrew their support.

If NIWA or any other CRI is “giving biased evidence to support commercial contracts”, as the Radio NZ piece suggests, that’s a huge scandal. I haven’t seen the letters sent to the Royal Society, so don’t know the details of the allegations. However, NIWA has responded indignantly, with CEO Jon Morgan saying the suggestion was an “insult” to the scientists employed there. Association of Scientists President Dr Nicola Gaston was interviewed and said she had “no evidence” this sort of manipulation of science was going on. But she pointed out that CRI scientists don’t have the same level of academic freedom as university scientists.

So do we have a problem here? Fresh water quality management and monitoring is hugely controversial. Is this simply a case of various groups and parties disagreeing with advice given by CRI scientists on a nuanced and complex issue or is there something more sinister going on?

Scientists as friends of the court

Bryce Johns from Fish & Game raises an interesting question in the Radio New Zealand interview – could we develop a system in New Zealand where independent experts can be called by a court of law to give neutral evidence on matters? He describes this as a “friend-of-the-court” system. This regularly occurs in other parts of the world, but is not without its own problems.

Take this example to do with Obamacare and contraception schemes. The US Supreme Court is looking at whether corporate employers with religious objections must include contraceptive coverage in their employee health plans. Various groups have taken it upon themselves to provide friend-of-the-court expert briefs in an attempt to influence the case. The science, not surprisingly, is interpreted differently. Indeed, the science involved in the specific questions is complex, but the Supreme Court won’t be making a ruling based on an interpretation of the science anyway.

What may work better to avoid duelling experts in the Environment Court and other courts, could be for the court to seek independent expert advice from a neutral body – say the Royal Society or the Association of Scientists. In some European countries, such as Norway, this is often what happens. The Court appoints expert witnesses to give evidence. But this also has its issues, as was discovered with the case of mass murderer Anders Breivik.

In that case appeals against the evidence generated by the court-appointed expert witnesses led to additional expert advice being sought by the court. This piece on The Conversation outlines the differences between the inquisitorial system of seeking expert advice in Norway and the adversarial system used in New Zealand and Australia, where both parties in the case will employ their own experts to give advice that helps their respective cases.

An expert witness is recognised by the court as a person who can give an opinion in a specific area of knowledge that is outside the understanding of an “average person”. Psychiatry and psychology expert witnesses must have relevant qualifications, training and experience to be recognised by the court as having such expertise.

Within Australia’s adversarial legal system, the defence and the prosecution will usually engage their own experts, even though the expert should not be an advocate for either party (defence or prosecution).

Usually, the expert will conduct an independent assessment and provide a report outlining the basis for his or her opinion. The report should state the facts or assumptions on which the opinion is based, and should not omit or fail to consider material facts which may contradict the opinion.

The expert should also make it clear when a particular question or issue falls outside his or her area of expertise. If the expert also considers there is insufficient data available, this must be stated to indicate that the opinion is no more than provisional.

In Norway, similar principles apply to being an expert witness, except that under their inquisitorial legal system, the court appoints the expert. (In an “inquisitorial” system, the court is actively involved in investigating the facts of the case, whereas in an “adversarial” system, the court acts an impartial umpire between the prosecution and the defence.)

I don’t see the use of expert advice in legal cases changing any time soon in New Zealand.

And our research institutions will continue to be encouraged to pursue contracts with the private sector – this is not unusual in science anywhere in the world.

But when it comes to CRIs giving advice is there evidence of bias based on them protecting their commercial interests? Do you have examples of where scientific advice has been manipulated or changed to suit the needs of industry?

Fish & Game letter

Good afternoon Di,

Fish and Game New Zealand is a significant participant in various Resource Management Act related statutory procedures, for which we engage a range of ‘expert witnesses’. The recent Board of Inquiry case involving the Ruataniwha irrigation scheme in Hawke’s Bay is a case in point, where Fish & Game engaged many experts and lead their expert evidence before the BOI.

Separately, we are encouraging members of the science community to become more intellectually visible in the public arena, so that the wider public might benefit from their knowledge, become more informed, and generally better appreciate the role of science.

One complication that emerges from this is that a confusion, and even conflict, can develop between the common notions of being an ‘expert’ and being an ‘advocate’, with scientists becoming very edgy about being branded the latter, which I fully understand.

So I am wondering if the Royal Society would serve the science community well by taking the lead and holding a workshop/seminar to discuss how this developing conundrum might best be handled, as I suspect it is escalating across all areas of scientific endeavour and concerning a growing number of ‘experts’.

Such an event could also traverse the situation where scientists become employed by organisations with a particular purpose, and how they might be able to retain their ‘expert’ status given the partiality of their employer. Another is the impartiality of scientists employed by CRIs – ‘Crown Research Institutes’ but increasingly being viewed as ‘Client Research Institutes’.

If you would like to discuss this further please do not hesitate to contact me.

Bryce

 

12 Comments

  1. stephenthorpe

    Anthonyscott is saying things as they should be, but not as they actually are! My point (which is a general point that I hope isn’t lost on those more interested in the specifics of the article above) is that even CRI core funding is increasingly being spent in a way which maximises profit. Unfortunately, this tends to result in less actual new research being done, but the same amount of public money spent. Core funded research tends to be inherently less profitable (which is why it has to be core funded), so the more core funding that can be diverted to quick and easy outputs (of little substance), the more time is freed up for CRI scientists to work on more profitable commercial contracts (more profitable for their institutions, that is).

  2. Peter Griffin

    Hi Anthony. I take your point about the opening sentence. CRIs don’t necessarily take on commercial work just to return a dividend to the Crown – the so-called “9% return” that is expected of them. They undertake that work for all the reasons that you mention.

    I’ve since read the Wendy Pond letter that was sent to the Royal Society – I obtained it independently from a source. It names scientists from NIWA and makes some fairly specific allegations on issues stretching back nearly 20 years – Ruataniwha is just the latest issue queried.

    I think, as you say, it is inappropriate to impugn the names of CRI scientists as these issues are raised – these are serious allegations and need to be considered properly through the appropriate channels.

    There also needs to be some way for scientists, whether based at CRI or university, who feel they are being pressured to deliver science that is convenient for commercial partners, can flag their concerns. Perhaps the Royal Society has a role to play there as an independent body that represents thousands of New Zealand scientists.

  3. anthonyscott

    Peter, allow me to correct some misunderstandings of the purpose of CRIs implicit in your first sentence. This may lead to better discussion on the many other topics raised in the main article and comments. Many of those topics, such as expert witnesses or academic freedom, are important for the entire system, and deserve their own discussions.

    I begin however by strongly supporting the comments by NIWA chief executive, John Morgan, on the integrity of CRI scientists, and the value placed upon their absolute integrity by our public and private sector clients.

    In your opening sentence you assert CRIs are encouraged to [carry out a lot of commercial work for clients] in the interests of returning a dividend to the Crown which funds them.

    This is not quite right. Firstly, on Crown funding. CRIs receive core purpose funding (CPF) from the Crown. This is, on average, 30 per cent of total revenues (it varies significantly from CRI to CRI). CPF funds e.g. nationally significant databases and collections, and research in line with the core purpose of the CRI. All else has to be sourced via bids (for contestable funds) and commercial contracts (from public and private sectors). CPF come from contracts repeatedly won by CRIs over many bidding rounds.

    Second, on dividends. CRIs are encouraged to work with public and private sector entities in order to ensure that the science research is linked with needs relevant to New Zealand, and that the research is applied. CRIs do not work with clients so as to return a dividend to the Crown. The Crown has been explicit in saying so, over many years.

    CRIs work with clients (public and private sector) as an essential means of delivering on our statutory responsibilities of science excellence, relevance and application to the benefit of New Zealand.

    The Government has made clear that they own CRIs to deliver benefit to New Zealand, not to enhance the bottom line of CRIs or dividends for the Crown. CRIs are not SOEs.

    The CRI Act 1992 says that CRIs have to do research which benefits New Zealand, and must pursue excellence, exhibit social responsibility, be ethical, must transfer, promote and disseminate the results of their research, and – in doing the above – must be financially viable.

    Financial viability enables continued investment into staff salaries, infrastructure and the like.

    The option is subsidy. Those people who wish to pursue that as a political objective should do so without feeling the need to impugn the integrity of CRI staff or the clients from the public and private sectors who commission their work expecting – and getting – excellent science objectively reported.

    Anthony Scott (CE, Science New Zealand).

  4. craigbuntnz

    I was a CRI scientist for 5 years or as I refer to them “the grey” years or the “gaping hole in my publication/citation track record” years or the when running into friends at conferences and “having to explain no I’m not dead it just appears that way when I dropped off the scene after joining a CRI” years.

    So I’ll say something about how ramifications from those years have impacted on me in the 3 years since I resigned. Soon after I joined Lincoln Uni I learnt that a Distinguished Professor here was told by my former section manager that I was under a restraint of trade and that I couldn’t be involved with any projects. Before my time at a CRI I’d spent about a decade with a pharmaceutical company, believe me I know what a restraint of trade is. So I was very surprised to learn that my former employee was saying I was under one. I knew I wasn’t because my house has a mortgage on it. Perhaps my former section manager was confused and misunderstood the confidentiality (which isn’t a restraint of trade) all employees are subject to, perhaps they were being deliberately misleading? Either way not very good practice, stinking of patch protection at the least. Why do I bring this up? Because I think it is a symptom of what I suspect is wrong with how the CRIs operate, substantiated by my interactions (above incidence but one example) with CRIs in the last 3 years. When as I suspect the biggest KPI of senior managers is the financial bottom line it leads to CRI scientists being seen as revenue generating units (ReGUs). Anything that is seen to impact negatively on this revenue generating capability is actively suppressed; for example scientists that might compromise the ability to form CRI/private research funder’s relationships by questioning potential funder’s practices, publicly questioning the decisions within CRIs, raising science questions that funders might not like to see raised ….

    Now that I’m at a Uni I really appreciate section 161 of the Education act 1989. If scientists are required primarily to generate revenue in a user pays system then maximizing that revenue generation capability could be achieved in many ways. I don’t feel the CRIs are doing it by increasing (or maintaining) scientific capability (and credibility is linked in my mind to capability) but have taken a more aggressive patch protection and relationship building approach with private research funders akin to keeping the customer happy and giving the customer what they want. And giving a customer what they want is a hell of a lot different to giving a customer what they need.

  5. stephenthorpe

    I find it most amusing that the question [Is CRI science being twisted to commercial ends?] is being asked NOW, when it has been a problem for a long time! I am not so concerned with the specific examples discussed above, but in the broader issue. For example, there has recently been a huge debate over whether Landcare/EPA rushed through very shonky application for the release of new dung beetles. Research outputs with core funding are also changing, and not in a good way, in response to commercial factors. Basically, more outputs with less actual new content seem to be what we are getting more and more of in some areas. The overall picture looks grim. For another example, I suspect that the whole OA campaign (globally I mean, not just here in NZ) is really just an attempt to divert public funding intended for research into publication fees to make publications OA even when they are of little interest to only a few specialists. I believe that this allows institutions to be more profitable, by spending more public money on less actual research (but recouping “overheads” nonetheless). Our CRIs are just going the way of many scientific institutions in the world today, not that this excuses them in any way, but it is part of a global problem. Boards only care about the bottom line (and most board members aren’t scientists anyway) ..

  6. nicgaston

    Hi Bart – you do a good job of treading that line, but it isn’t easy – and I do know CRI scientists who have been reprimanded for things they have said online, so it’s not a silly concern.
    My main point is that if we want our CRI scientists to act as objective experts who systematically put public good above commercial contracts – then we probably need to reorganise our CRI system to provide some of the incentives and protections that academics have. But with the system we have, I don’t think we should be overly critical of people who are rather naturally acting in their own best interests and those of their employer, either.
    I do think the CRIs probably need to give more thought to these issues that what they seem to be doing at the moment: even if the problem is not so much manipulation of the science as public perception (which I don’t know): the public perception matters.

  7. Bart

    I kinda doubt there would be any cases where data was fudged to make the client happy. It has occurred elsewhere in the world but I haven’t heard or seen any hint of it in our institute or any of the other CRIs.

    Much more subtle though is the situation where industry-led research is focused on specific issues and specifically NOT on other issues. That is, the funder is NOT going to pay for work on a subject and since you aren’t fully funded anyway you can’t spend any time answering that question. That does push research in specific directions.

    It is most definitely a weakness in the way our CRIs are funded. It’s a weakness that is excused by suggesting Universities can cover that gap, but they often don’t have the expertise and background to even know there is a question to be asked.

    As with most of the problems in our CRIs it comes back to chronic underfunding by the governments (both of them for the past 20+ years). So long as govt funding is below OECD averages we can’t expect to get the research we need let alone the research we want.

    Note I’m trying to tread a fine line here. None of my comments are moderated by my managers but I’m conscious of trying not to abuse that freedom.

  8. Peter Griffin

    Good points guys. The bigger issue in my opinion is, as Bart points out, CRI staff just not being able to comment on a number of issues that are related to commercial contracts or which are politically sensitive. I can’t point to examples of where CRIs have produced science that is quite obviously a bit too convenient for the client looking to use their advice. But often scientists just can’t talk when the media needs to hear from them the most.

  9. Bart

    It is also worth noting that Mike Joy is employed by a University where the charter actually specifies that staff must act for and sometime challenge society.

    Sadly the CRI charters have no such content.

  10. Bart

    I don’t think our CRI makes any bones about being in the pay of some clients. As a result there are some subjects where comment made by staff MUST be approved by the management.
    It is a valid criticism of our funding structure. Nobody thinks it is perfect.
    The only solution is to insist that we fund our CRIs from tax money for the benefit of NZ and not from industry for the benefit of industry.

  11. stuartyeates

    In the courts of law, avoidance of the appearance of conflict of interest is important; justice has to be seen to be done. There certainly has been the appearance of a conflict of interest here. Whether or not this conflict of interest has led to bias in any particular case is a much more challenging question to answer.

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