April 23, 2006
Conflicted about Conflicts of Interest?
Posted to Author: Pielke Jr., R. | Climate Change
On climate change, do the media, scientists, and commentators treat possible conflicts of interest equally across the political spectrum? Based on the anecdote reported below, it appears not.
First the precedent. Imagine if a prominent non-scientist responsible for editing official government reports on climate change was at the same time being paid to engage in advocacy work related that that issue. You and I would probably have some concerns, no? This situation is not so far from a true story.
Last fall, a senior staff member in the Bush Administration’s Council on Economic Quality resigned after it was revealed in the New York Times that he had edited government reports related to climate change. As The New York Times reported,
Philip A. Cooney, the former White House staff member who repeatedly revised government scientific reports on global warming, will go to work for Exxon Mobil this fall, the oil company said yesterday.
Much concern, appropriately in my view, was expressed at the time that Mr. Cooney’s ties to an organization with a vested political agenda on climate change made it unseemly at best to have him involved with editing a government report on climate change (although as I wrote at the time, the edits themselves were not so significant). For instance, one member of the press asked the following of President Bush’s spokesman, Scott McClellen,
"Scott, on Philip Cooney, you said earlier today that the White House has been -- that he had been looking at other options for some time. With his move to Exxon, are there concerns now about at least an appearance of impropriety?"
McClellen avoided the question, of course.
Now consider this case. Last night HBO aired a documentary on global warming (which I did not see). The program describes itself as focused on describing the problem posed by global warming and recommending solutions. Its producer, Laurie David, claims that the documentary to be non-partisan, but at the same time the program clearly describes its mission as one focused on advocacy. The writer of the program is identified as Susan Joy Hassol.
Ms. Hassol, interestingly enough, currently serves as the Technical Editor for the U.S. Climate Change Science Program’s report on Climate Change Science Program Temperature Trends in the Lower Atmosphere Steps for Understanding and Reconciling Differences (authors are listed here in PDF). She was also a lead author of the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment (here in PDF) and edited the U.S. National Assessment (here in PDF).
I am sure that Ms. Hassol must be good at what she does, given her resume (a short but incomplete bio is here in PDF), though she is clearly not a scientist and it is unclear what subject(s) her degree(s) may be in. Ms. Hassol is not shy about her political agenda on climate change, as indicated by this interview last week in the Aspen Times:
Hassol said specific mention of Kyoto is not in the final version [of the HBO film], even though she felt it was important.
So here is the situation: A prominent non-scientist responsible for editing official government reports on climate change is at the exact same time being paid to engage in advocacy work related that that issue. To quote the media question to Scott McClellen regarding the Phil Cooney affair, “are there not indications of at least the appearance of impropriety?”
Let’s get the obvious differences out of the way – Mr. Cooney worked as a government employee for the President in the White House, while Ms. Hassol serves as a paid consultant for the government. ExxonMobil is a favorite target of activists, and the environmental groups associated with the HBO special are much less visible. Those differences aside, my question is, is it fair for Mr. Cooney to serve as the focus of attention for his possibly conflicted role in the preparation of official government reports on climate science, and Ms. Hassol to get a free pass while also editing major government science reports? Or think of it this way, if Mr. Cooney has been an outside consultant editing the same reports, while also in the pay of ExxonMobil (or any other group with a vested interest) would that have lessened the focus on his role? I think not. Let me reiterate that this post is not to disparage either Mr. Cooney or Ms. Hassol, but to compare and contrast their very similar professional roles and how it seems that each has been treated very differently by the media and commentators, and certainly by scientists. Does this situation say something about different standards applied to different people on this issue, depending upon whose politics they happen to advocate? Are we conflicted about conflicts of interest?Posted on April 23, 2006 09:53 AM
Mr. Cooney and Ms. Hassol are in different leagues. Hers being little league and his the majors.
The truth is that any consensus which exists, whether pro anthropic GHG emissions or con, hangs by a fraying thread. We don't know where in the rabbit hole we are or if we can find our way out. To imply otherwise ignores what little science has to offer at the moment.
The loss of sea-ice extent to the tune of millions of square kilometers and the subsequent feedback mechanisms should cause alarm. Step off the sidewalk onto the asphalt on a hot summer day and you will understand my point. To think that this trend is simply going to burden future generations (an acceptable sacrifice by Boomer standards) ignores the fact that it could turn ours upside down. This is just a plain fact. If people are alarmed they should be.
...but we'll just wait and see won't we -- keeping out fingers crossed that everything we have built and all the security we hold dear does not evaporate along with our drinking water.
Global Warming whether anthropic or natural is happening. Massive amounts of glacial meltwater are changing our currents. The Gulf-Stream should not be an afterthough...it is the trigger for a repeat of history. Abrupt warming then BAM -- ICE AGE. At least this is what history has taught us...and nothing has changed the ocean currents or geolography enough to think history will not repeat itself. We are locked in a cycle and it is shifting. How fast? I think soon (a decade or less) but your guess is as good as mine. And that is the truth.
Posted by: Creditpro at April 23, 2006 04:50 PM
Ms. Hassel said:
I couldn't agree more. First, though, we need to figure out what they, in fact, are. Right now we have no clue.
Yes, it is a plain fact. It *could*. "Could" being the appropriate modifier. There "could" be a teapot orbiting Pluto.
Also, the NADW has always been moderated by Arctic snowmelt. How could it be otherwise?
Posted by: Steve Hemphill at April 23, 2006 06:37 PM
This reaches new heights of absurdity. Susan Hassol is a science writer with a great deal of experience and expertise for writing on science issues, including both technical reporting and popular writing. She is not a scientist, but neither is Roger Pielke Jr. Both are qualified to write on science issues and at least one of them has an inkling of how to separate personal views and reporting. Susan Hassol is not a government employee but works as a consultant. Roger Pielke, Jr., is a government employee.
Roger presents absolutely no evidence that Hassol altered any government report she wrote to reflect her personal views.
Phillip Cooney was a lawyer at the American Petroleum Institute and leader of their "Climate Team" before he went to the White House as Chief of Staff of the White House Council on Environmental Quality". As Chief of Staff he was a government employee.
We have written evidence that Cooney altered government reports to match his personal views. See http://www.sierraclub.org/sierra/200601/decoder.asp for some examples.
Posted by: Eli Rabett at April 23, 2006 06:52 PM
That's funny Eli. You prove, once again, that education is no replacement for intelligence.
Interesting that you would quote the Sierra Club. Is that supposed to be a balanced reference?
It's evident from your link that the report Cooney edited was alarmist and biased. The result of longer growing seasons is an increase in insects and disease? Really, you are one funny guy.
Posted by: Steve Hemphill at April 23, 2006 08:20 PM
Here's my 2 cents worth.
Viewed this way, Hassol's alleged biases don't matter. She does not work for the President or any important policymaking body. And I don't think you'd argue without evidence that she's introducing bias in the CCSP document.
Thus, I would argue that there's not really a double standard here.
Posted by: Andrew Dessler at April 23, 2006 08:42 PM
Are you arguing a general point here, i.e., that it is generally irrelevant if a government consultant working on a science report is at the same time receiving payments from an organization with a clear advocacy agenda related to that science?
So If Phil Cooney had been a consultant, his role then would have been OK?
Is it similarly OK if, say, a consultant working on an FDA report on drug approval is also receiving funding from a drug company?
Or how about a denfense analyst who is working on a report on Iranian nuclear program who happens also to be employed by a group lobbying for the Iranian gov't in Washington?
I haven't reported on Hassol's edits, and neither have you, so we don't know any details, however, it seems pefectly fair to raise the issue of an appearance of a conflict here.
Posted by: Roger Pielke Jr. at April 23, 2006 08:51 PM
Just a friendly reminder.
Numerous psychological studies have confirmed the following to phenomena:
1: You are more biased than you think you are
2: Everyone else is a lot LESS biased than you think they are
Bias is everywhere, of course, and we should all be aware of it. Likewise, minor "conflicts of interest" exist in just about every important choice we make. However, we have a tendency to overestimate everyone else's conflicts of interest, especially those of people with whom we disagree. We should be aware of this fact as well.
Except for in the most brazen cases, worrying about conflict of interest is a waste of time that leads to clouding thinking and an easy way to dismiss opinions that disagree with your world-view. This is more dangerous than the conflicts of interest themselves.
Posted by: Chad Brick at April 23, 2006 09:27 PM
Do you have some technical definition of what it means to have a vested interest in something, one that I am perhaps not used to? By this definition does Greenpeace have a vested interest in stopping CO2 emissions?
I think people often conflate being an advocate and having a vested interest, and I think you have done this and this is why you ask the question you do in your post.
Posted by: coby at April 23, 2006 09:49 PM
Chad- Thanks much for your comments! We discussed such research here:
Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr. at April 23, 2006 09:55 PM
Steve Hemphill misses the point. Cooney's "corrections" have been released as a result of an FOI request, however, the entire document is not available on the net. I pointed to one URL that had a reasonable chunk of the documents. If anyone knows of any other with more of the document, please post a link.
I especially enjoyed Stevie's temperate ad linkum response. The ad hom is something that our esteemed host made some comments on a few weeks ago and is about what one expects.
As you may recall, the last time Stevie tried this we pointed out that two of his heros had feet of fertilizer (http://tinyurl.com/pykfl and http://tinyurl.com/rjgos for starters) and the third was close to walking in their footsteps http://tinyurl.com/nu7pt.
Posted by: Eli Rabett at April 23, 2006 10:00 PM
Hi Coby- Thanks for your question. I think that Wikipedia gets it just about right -- "vested interest":
"A vested interest is the state or condition of having a special interest in protecting or supporting something for the purpose of self-interest, gain or benefit, often financially or politically. By way of protecting their vested interests, individuals, groups or other entities may seek to maintain a status quo. However, if changing a system works in one's favour, supporting or effecting such change may also be in one's vested interest. "Vested interests" may also refer collectively to individuals or groups which seek to maintain a favourable state of affairs.
A politican may therefore be said to have a vested interest in making a particular decision or achieving a particular outcome. For example, if the politician own shares in a company which may be awarded a lucrative government contract, he or she may have a vested interest in seeing that the company wins the contract. Conversely, a company which would benefit from a change in government policy will have a vested interest in the successful election of a candidate who supports such a change. Politicians are often required to declare financial interests and/or divest themselves of any asset or influence which may be seen as or lead to a conflict of interest. Failing to do so may amount to political corruption."
According to this definition, yes, Greenpeace has a vested interest in stopping CO2 emissions.
It seems tautological to assert that individuals or groups advocate for their vested (or special) interests. Did you have something eles in mind?
Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr. at April 23, 2006 10:00 PM
Actually in the sense that RPJ cites, organizations such as Greenpeace have vested interests in NOT getting their policy instituted because this will decrease their contributions (for the other side think abortion. If abortion were outlawed, contributions to pro-choice organizations would skyrocket and the anti-abortion groups would get zilch).
Since you cannot point to where Greenpeace will profit from stricter CO2 emission limits (and profit strictly in the monetary sense), this one collapses.
Posted by: Eli Rabett at April 23, 2006 10:05 PM
Eli- Thanks for your comment! If such intellectual contortionism is necessary to make your argument, then my arguments must be on pretty solid ground. Greenpeace as completely disingenuous, focused only on money, not politics; a good one!! Thanks ;-)
Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr. at April 23, 2006 10:12 PM
Thanks Eli -
I get *your* point very clearly now. According to you, Greenpeace et al are just in it for the money. So, you must be making arguments for modeling and against global warming, etc. to ensure the other side (aka the dastardly CO2 makers and my "alleged" heroes et al) keep logic on their side. And I thought your ineptitude was a personality trait!
Thanks for clearing that up!
Posted by: Steve Hemphill at April 23, 2006 10:48 PM
Obviously, one does not want an advocate intoducing a bias into a document that is purported to not have a bias. Since all people have biases, the key to avoiding the appearance of malfeasance is to have a transparent and credible assessment process that assures that individual biases do not make it into the final document.
I have not been involved in the CCSP process, so I cannot comment on whether it's set up transparently or not, or whether Ms. Hassol's comments biased the document.
But I can say that the outrage over Cooney was not that this one individual inserted his bias into "Our changing planet," but that his actions were part of an overarching strategy of the Administration to push their preferred AGW policy of "no action" by misrepresenting scientific uncertainty.
Thus, I continue to argue that these two individuals represent different situations.
Posted by: Andrew Dessler at April 23, 2006 10:49 PM
Andrew- Thanks I find it hard to square your comment, "The argument over Cooney's bias is not that his edits actually mattered" ... with you other comment, "his actions were part of an overarching strategy of the Administration to push their preferred AGW policy of "no action" by misrepresenting scientific uncertainty."
If his edits did not matter, then how is it that they represented a misrepresentation? Can you clear that up?
Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr. at April 23, 2006 10:53 PM
Sorry Roger, that is the same general definition I had in mind but I don't get it. What is Greenpeace's vested interest in CO2 emissions reductions?
BTW, you inspired a new post on my own blog!
Thanks for always being thought provoking!
Posted by: coby at April 23, 2006 10:56 PM
Thanks Coby, I responded on your site. I would rgue that there are more values to be condidered than the purely financial. Thanks!
Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr. at April 23, 2006 11:03 PM
No one has access to Truth and no one is without self-interest. We need to always consider the source and to see which ideas have withstood the test of time. Remember that the existence of the lumiferous ether was the overwhelming consensus in physics not so long ago.
Also you might consider linking to a couple of tutorials on public choice economics. Some of the posters above seem to be unacquainted with the science in this area.
Posted by: D. F. Linton at April 24, 2006 06:36 AM
Dr. Pielke -
Your article implies that Susan Hassol, in her capacity as Associate Editor of the U.S. CCSP Synthesis and Assessment Report 1.1 ("Temperature Trends in the Lower Atmosphere") is responsible for introducing some form of bias in the Report. Nothing could be further from the truth. I am Convening Lead Author of Chapter 5 of this Report. I have worked together with Ms. Hassol for the past two years. Chapter 5 has always been under the scientific and editorial control of myself and the other Lead Authors of the chapter (Peter Thorne of the Hadley Center, and Joyce Penner of the University of Michigan).
Communication of science to policymakers - which is the goal of the CCSP reports - is a difficult business. Susan Hassol's expertise has been invaluable in helping the authors of the first CCSP Report explain complex scientific issues in terms readily understandable by a lay audience. She has made our Report a better and clearer Report. She has not modified the scientific conclusions of the Report.
Shame on you for taking such a cheap shot. Shame on you for indulging in unjustified innuendo. Shame on Nature magazine for incorrectly describing you as a scientist with a "proclivity for contentious, if polite, debate". There was nothing "polite" about your attack on Susan Hassol.
Dr. Ben Santer
Posted by: Ben Santer at April 24, 2006 03:46 PM
Dr. Santer- Thanks for your comments. You have completely mischaracterized my post which at no point conatained any allegations about the substance of the reports that she has worked on. In fact, I said so expressly at several points and also in these comments. Here is what I actually wrote:
"A prominent non-scientist responsible for editing official government reports on climate change is at the exact same time being paid to engage in advocacy work related that that issue. To quote the media question to Scott McClellen regarding the Phil Cooney affair, “are there not indications of at least the appearance of impropriety?”"
I also wrote:
"I am sure that Ms. Hassol must be good at what she does, given her resume ..."
"Let me reiterate that this post is not to disparage either Mr. Cooney or Ms. Hassol, but to compare and contrast their very similar professional roles and how it seems that each has been treated very differently by the media and commentators, and certainly by scientists."
I suppose that it is fair to conclude from your remarks that you see no possible appearance of impropriety if a government consultant on a scientific report is also being paid by a group with an interest in the outcome of that report?
Does this view hold for just this situation or more generall?
For instance, as I raised earlier in this thread, is it similarly OK if, say, a consultant working on an FDA report on drug approval is also receiving funding from a drug company?
Or how about a defense analyst who is working on a report on Iranian nuclear program who happens also to be employed by a group lobbying for the Iranian gov't in Washington?
Your comment may help to explain to readers of this site why it is that Mr. Cooney and Ms. Hassol are treated differently. Thanks.
Posted by: Roger Pielke Jr. at April 24, 2006 04:04 PM
Both Exxon and Greenpeace qualify as special interests, or parts of special interest groups, but for vested interest, wikipedia speaks of "self-interest".
My copy of Webster's is kinder to your vision: "an interest in which the holder has a strong personal commitment".
Still, there is clearly a difference between a direct commercial interest and a general, or even eleemosynary interest in a subject. I will listen to both, but I would never even consider taking the commercial interest as the only word.
Posted by: Mark Shapiro at April 24, 2006 04:08 PM
I seem to recall falling off my chair about 10 years ago when then President Clinton proclaimed that the debate on AGW was over. Since I knew that it was not, and that the science did not support such a statement, the Administration must have been injecting its own particular viewpoint into the discussion. Even though the statement was quite provably false, no one seemed to mind.
Fast forward to the 21st century where, once again, we have an administration injecting its own viewpoint into the discussion. Only this time, the changes do not involve factual statements, but statements that are highly speculative. These changes draw a lot of fire, even though they can not be shown to be inaccurate, just different.
Of course there is a double standard! If you could engage anyone who doesn't think so long enough, I bet you will eventually get them to admit that there is no double standard because (they believe) Ms. Hassel is right and Mr. Cooney is wrong!
Posted by: Jim Clarke at April 24, 2006 04:59 PM
I get the impression that Philip A. Cooney was able to make edits that were not supervised by climate scientists. However, it seems that Susan Joy Hassol does not have an equivalent power; Dr. Ben Santer: 'Chapter 5 has always been under the scientific and editorial control of myself and the other Lead Authors of the chapter ...' .
If my impressions of their respective editing powers are more or less correct, Hassol's position implies far less potential for conflict of interest than Cooney's. As this difference is a detail, those on the inside so to speak, are aware of it, and are likely to unintentionally assume outsiders are aware of this detail. However, outsiders will likely miss this detail, leading to quite a difference in perceptions of the appearance of a conflict of interest.
I'm not a scientist, and I don't have any special knowledge of how people communicate or perceive things, but the notion I outline above does seem to explain some the differences in the viewpoints expressed in these comments.
Posted by: llewelly at April 24, 2006 06:46 PM
Actually Cooney's edits were reviewed by scientists at the NRC:
Like Ben Santer, I'm sure Cooney's colleagues were upset at outsiders raising the notion of an appearance of a conflict of interest. Once again, Wikipedia is on target: "In fact, a conflict of interest does exist even if there are no improper acts as a result of it."
This link is useful as well:
Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr. at April 24, 2006 07:16 PM
There is much to like in this discussion, Chad Brick's point about bias, Mark Shapiro clearly differentiating between vested and special interests and Ben Santer cutting through the aggressive cringe to the nub of the thing.
Of course we have the usual improbable explanation from Roger. The bit about the NRC approving Cooney's changes are a bit much. To repeat the idea that the NRC approved Cooney's edits does not follow at all. The NRC clearly saw a threat to the program from political involvement. They unhappily left the following marker in the Executive Summary:
"Involving high-level political leaders in CCSP management helps to provide the program with the resources that it requires, but also allows the possibility that the program’s priorities or scientific results could be influenced by political considerations. Either the reality or perception of such influences could serve to discredit the program unless independent evaluations of the program and its products are conducted on a regular basis. The CCSP should establish a mechanism for independent oversight of the program as a whole in order to maintain its long-term scientific credibility."
So Roger, inquiring minds wish to know, do you think Cooney's edits (those you have seen) were a)proper and b) correct.
Posted by: Eli Rabett at April 24, 2006 08:40 PM
If Roger and Steve think that getting what you want is not a problem for single issue organizations, they might want to consider the case of the March of Dimes, which shrunk to a mere shadow of itself after the discovery (which they had funded) of polio vaccines had wiped out the disease in the US.
This lack of insight from Steve is not surprising, but Roger considers himself a policy expert and should understand the issue.
Posted by: Eli Rabett at April 24, 2006 08:43 PM
Oh yes, Roger, what do you think about Jim Clarke's statement that "the debate on AGW was over. Since I knew that it was not, and that the science did not support such a statement."
Do you think that the science supported the statements then? Does it support the statement now?
Posted by: Eli Rabett at April 24, 2006 08:46 PM
Thanks for your thoughtful comments and questions.
You ask: "So Roger, inquiring minds wish to know, do you think Cooney's edits (those you have seen) were a)proper and b) correct."
I think that they were (a) improper and (b) irrelevant. I have disussed these comments at some length here on Prometheus (just search for Cooney or Clooney (sorry about that last one)).
Posted by: Roger Pielke Jr. at April 24, 2006 09:18 PM
Eli- On your second question:
"Oh yes, Roger, what do you think about Jim Clarke's statement that "the debate on AGW was over. Since I knew that it was not, and that the science did not support such a statement."
Do you think that the science supported the statements then? Does it support the statement now?"
Debate on climate change is clearly far from over, just have a look at our comments. As far as the science, as I have written many times, I accept the IPCC WGI consensus. What it means for action is of course quite complicated. But also as I've written, the state of the science is neither a reason for action or inaction. What we chose to do involved values, about which there will always be debates.
Posted by: Roger Pielke Jr. at April 24, 2006 09:27 PM
Eli- On your interest in the special interest of environmental organizations, this Sacramento Bee series should be of some interest:
Posted by: Roger Pielke Jr. at April 24, 2006 09:30 PM
You never cease to amaze me Eli. I suppose that if you worked for the March of Dimes you would not have wanted a cure for polio to be discovered? Do you think everyone is so self centered?
As far as the debate being over, I too support this WGI statement, which is of late becoming my mantra:
"Feedbacks between atmospheric chemistry, climate, and the biosphere were not developed to the stage that they could be included in the projected numbers here. Failure to include such coupling is likely to lead to systematic errors and may substantially alter the projected increases in the major greenhouse gases."
Posted by: Steve Hemphill at April 24, 2006 09:33 PM
Steve, if you take reassurance from that, you don't understand what you are reading at all.
Posted by: coby at April 24, 2006 10:12 PM
Roger, sorry if I seem obtuse. I can accept that there are indeed other interests besides monetary. But I still do not know what vested interests the environmental groups have in reductions of CO2.
If you are thinking along the lines of State of Fear then I would think letting Global Warming run rampant would provide them with dozens of serious issues for the next few centuries to agitate and fund raise about. Crichton's particular theme depends on GW not being real and no serious person can support that notion. I hope you are not a fan of that book!
Posted by: coby at April 24, 2006 10:20 PM
It's incredible how the alarmists fall like dominos when they can be trapped by the concept of selfishness. They don't understand. Here are some hints guys: Civilization. Altruism. Do unto others. Character.
Okay - more basic. The ideal of Greenpeace, March of Dimes, et al is that they create a world wherein their cause has been removed and they're not needed *at all*.
Greenpeace people sometimes can't help it if they're confused about who's bankrolling what priority, or that there might be some influences within their organization contrary to their cause. For the most part they're good, honest, sometimes confused and frequently naive people.
Amazing. I am simply incredulous at the lack of integrity shown by some alarmists here. Then again, when I picture people on a bandwagon I get the same mental image. Maybe I'm not surprised...
Posted by: Steve Hemphill at April 24, 2006 11:18 PM
If you are in such a position of influence that you claim, I am in fear of the output for such influential documents.
There is clearly no claim of impropriety. This is about conflict of interest. It is the POTENTIAL for individuals to find themselves in a personal or moral quandry as they try to serve to (metaphorical ) masters. The eindividuals concerned don't even need to be conscious of this for it to be a threat to arriving at best outcome.
In you mock indignation you are playing into the hands of those who might perseve many of the "official" forums such as the IPCC badly tainted with conflicted contributors and managers.
Your bizarre response to Roger's clearly valid questions only serves to make me ant to know more about your personal interests and objectives.
Posted by: Paul at April 25, 2006 02:52 AM
Coby- Thanks for your comments. Perhaps this discussion helps:
n 1993, Harvard's Dennis Thompson defined conflict of interest in The New England Journal of Medicine:
" A conflict of interest is a set of conditions in which professional judgment concerning a primary interest (such as a patient's welfare or the validity of research) tends to be unduly influenced by a secondary influence (such as financial gain)."
" The secondary interest is usually not illegitimate in itself, and indeed it may even be a necessary and desirable part of professional practice. Only its relative weight in professional decisions is problematic. The aim is not to eliminate or necessarily to reduce financial gain or other secondary interests (such as preference for family and friends or the desire for prestige and power). It is rather to prevent these secondary factors from dominating or appearing to dominate the relevant primary interest in the making of professional decisions."
So a commitment to a political position (i.e., endorsement of a political candidate or a specific policy) is in fact an interest. Whether such interests are important or not depends on the context, however, important government panels, like the 9/11 Commission, have political balance for a reason. There are of course other sorts of interests that matter besides financial or political, e.g., NSF won't let me review proposals from people at the University of Colorado even if I don't know them or have any connection, and so on.
Posted by: Roger Pielke Jr. at April 25, 2006 07:27 AM
If you work for a public institution, you are (hopefully) required to take ethics training. One of the take-home points is that "potential" and "perceived" conflicts of interest are to be avoided even if no prohibited activity takes place. The reason is that you are trying to gain public trust, and it's hard to do that if there are even perceived conflicts of interests.
It would be interesting to run Roger's scenario by a couple of university, state, and federal ethics officers to hear their take on it.
Posted by: Jim at April 25, 2006 07:47 AM
All- This case might also be worth thinking about in this context:
Posted by: Roger Pielke Jr. at April 25, 2006 08:49 AM
One must be VERY careful in potential "conflict of interest" cases because the mere SUGGESTION of inpropriety can sometimes be damaging to a person's reputation, whether there is any truth to the suggestion or not.
Because of this, BEFORE one even speculates in print about the possibility of conflict of interest, it would ceratinly seem wise to actually investigate the issue a little bit and see if the person in question actaully did (or, at a minimum "appears to have done") something (in this case with the edits) that was inappropriate to/inconsistent with their official job description.
To determine if this is the case sometimes requires little more than a simple phone call or e-mail. In this case, one made to Dr. Santer (who commented above that Ms. Hassol "has not modified the scientific conclusions of the Report") and some of the others charged with overseeing Ms. Hassol's edits may have been sufficient.
It is NOT valid to merely say that "Such investigation is the media's job, not mine" and then go on to wonder weather the media is even DOING their job (ie, is the media "Conflicted about Conflicts of Interest?")
Posted by: laurence jewett at April 25, 2006 09:18 AM
Laurence- Thanks for your comment. But, once again, let me clarify. Ms. Hassol is at the same time receiving funding to work on a major government scientific report at the same time she is being paid to promote political advocacy on the exact same subject. These are facts, and in my view quite a sufficient basis to raise the issue of the potential for a conflict of interest. As several people have commented here and elsewhere, the issue with Phil Cooney was not necessarily the substance of his edits, but the appearance of a conflict of interest which goes to the legitimacy of the report itself.
Have a look at this news article on a similar subject:
Along these lines, I'll ask you the same questions that I have asked others, which, interestingly no one has chosen to answer (maybe you'll be the first?):
For instance, as I raised earlier in this thread, is it similarly OK if, say, a consultant working on an FDA report on drug approval is also receiving funding from a drug company?
Or how about a defense analyst who is working on a report on Iranian nuclear program who happens also to be employed by a group lobbying for the Iranian gov't in Washington?
As far as your comment ""Such investigation is the media's job, not mine" -- why do you think we are raising this issue here?
Posted by: Roger Pielke Jr. at April 25, 2006 09:33 AM
Thanks for your patience Roger, you win! This situation represents a potential conflict of interest.
It still seems a minor concern and nothing I would consider in need of correction. If she had a permanent position and were simultaneouly working with or for environmental groups I would consider that wrong. If she held or had held some kind of administrative position in an environmental organization while doing this consulting I would consider that wrong. If she had worked as a lobbyist for Greenpeace I would consider that wrong.
If she were doing some consulting work for Exxon, I would not consider that wrong but I would be suspicious. I hope that is a justifiable feeling based on history and not just knee-jerk bias on my part.
I would like to emphasis, and acknowledge that you have made clear the same, that there is no indication whatsoever that any impropriety has taken place or any particular reason to think one is likely.
Posted by: coby at April 25, 2006 09:59 AM
"Ms. Hassol is at the same time receiving funding to work on a major government scientific report at the same time she is being paid to promote political advocacy on the exact same subject. These are facts,"
Perhaps these ARE facts.
"and in my view quite a sufficient basis to raise the issue of the potential for a conflict of interest. " -- RP
Perhaps, but perhaps not. This is your opinion.
All I suggested in my post above was that some ways of raising such issues are clearly more appropriate than others -- The more appropriate way in this case is doing a little investigation first (calling up Dr. Santer and others and asking a few questions FIRST in this case before posting ANYTHING on your blog).
There an irony here: Merely posting the question on a blog "Is there an appearance of conflict of interest in this case" makes it appear that there might be.
As far as answering questions about hypothetical cases, each described with a single short sentence, I would simply answer that I would apply the same standard with regard to "posing questions about impropriety" that I suggested applying to the Hassol case above: ie, make a few phone calls FIRST.
Perhaps you will answer MY primary question: Why did you NOT make the simple phone call in the Hassol case BEFORE posting anything on your blog?
That would seem the most appropriate AND wise thing to do.
"As far as your comment ""Such investigation is the media's job, not mine" -- why do you think we are raising this issue here?"
Forgive my Old fashionedness here, but when I refer to the media (as above), I refer to the traditional media. I would certainly expect the traditional media to apply the minimal investigative standard that I have applied above. I suspect that they would also be concerned with applying it becasue of the potential for libel.
I would ALSO expect that you would follow a similar standard on a blog.
Posted by: laurence jewett at April 25, 2006 10:09 AM
I will answer your questions above: both examples are competely unacceptable conflicts of interest.
I suspect the salient difference lies in the fact that you are comparing a profit oriented business or a foreign national power with a non-profit organization. I think profit and power are far more corrupting motivations and thus we need higher standards with these motives to guard against crime or impropriety.
Posted by: coby at April 25, 2006 10:10 AM
Thanks for your further comments. Let me observe that you are not following your own advice, when you make the foillowing assertion:
"Why did you NOT make the simple phone call in the Hassol case BEFORE posting anything on your blog?"
How do you know I did not talk to anyone about this? Did you ask me?
You did not, and your assertion about my actions is in fact completely wrong.
While I obviously did not talk to Ben Santer, I did speak with someone closely involved who shared with me some of Ms. Hassol's email correspondence related to report production, and while I am not presently discussing or asserting anything about the substance of her role, I will assert with complete confidence that given that background I have absolutely no qualms raising this issue.
I find it quite interesting the degree to which a double standard is being applied here.
Posted by: Roger Pielke Jr. at April 25, 2006 10:18 AM
A reader emails me to observe that Cooney's edits to the Our Changing Planet document were not reviewed by the NRC. However, Cooney's edits (and everyone else's) to the CCSP Strategic Plan were reviewed. Thanks for that clarification!
Posted by: Roger Pielke Jr. at April 25, 2006 11:48 AM
I think Coby raised a key issue with this remark:
"I suspect the salient difference lies in the fact that you are comparing a profit oriented business or a foreign national power with a non-profit organization. I think profit and power are far more corrupting motivations and thus we need higher standards with these motives to guard against crime or impropriety."
I don't want to argue examples of which motivations are more corrupting and therefore deserve more scrutiny. In this context, however, I do want to comment that "appearance of impropriety" is fundamentally subjective. Appearance to whom? In what forum? Etc. Therefore, subjective feelings about the relative corrupting power of different temptations will necessarily feed into whether or not people raise the issue. If you think the fuel industry is corrupt and venal, you are much more likely to raise the alarm about the Cooney case and vice versa.
In our society, sometimes we mandate hierarchies of subjective values. For example, when there's a conflict between different, opposing rights guaranteed in the constitution, the courts often rule that one of these rights trumps the others.
Posted by: Chris Weaver at April 25, 2006 12:55 PM
Roger: I admit I was wrong in making an unwarranted assumption -- and I appologize for this.
You are also correct to point out that I was NOT following my own advice -- ie, I WAS applying a standard with regard to seeking evidence before posting that I was niot folowing myself.
Also, I respect your reticence to make a definitive statement in this case, but IF you possess information from a source who would be in a position to know that Hassol's editing of reports is likely to have been compromised by her personal views, then you have ALSO met the minimal standard that I referred to above for raising the "conflict of interest" issue.
The stament you make really does not have to be definite however: In the case of your original post, it would have been very useful to make a very general statement up front that "I have spoken with someone close to this issue and seen e-mails that would seem to indicate a reason to explore the conflict of interest issue further".
Posted by: laurence jewett at April 25, 2006 01:31 PM
Laurence- Point taken, thanks!
Posted by: Roger Pielke Jr. at April 25, 2006 01:34 PM
I think laurence and Chris point out, subtly, interesting rhetorical tactics.
And I return, again, to the point that there is a retroactive/retrospective finger-pointing going on sans examples of proper behavior.
Posted by: Dano at April 25, 2006 01:36 PM
I think that the suggested proper behavior on these subjects is pretty obvious, e.g., from posts that we've discussed over the past few years:
If you chair a presidential advisory committee, don't engage in lobbying Congress on issues under that committee
If you chair the IPCC don't advocate specific policies related to IPCC work
If you are an oil industry insider be careful about editing government science reports
If you are being paid by environmental advocates, be careful about at the same time being paid to participate in official government reports
This seems to me to be non-partisan, common sense, but from the discussion on this blog (and a few emails) it seems that many folks believe that one set of standards apply to certain people, and another set to others.
Posted by: Roger Pielke Jr. at April 25, 2006 01:46 PM
We had a discussion around here on this today. My general feeling is similar to the first line of the first comment to this post: the differences in position between Cooney and Hassol matters. Cooney was Chief of Staff of a Council and Hassol -- clear even before Santer's weird and misplaced rant, but Santer confirms it -- is a technical writer. The different treatment given to these cases is appropriate given their (perceived or real) differences in level of influence in the process. That's not to say that Cooney's treatment wasn't overblown -- I think it was.
In Roger's FDA and Iran questions, if the FDA or defense staffers hold the position of technical writer and are not responsible for the final content of the report, I say no biggie. If, on the other hand, we are talking about the Chief of Staff of the FDA Committee to Recommend Action on the Approval of Vioxx, and that CoS has taken $$ from Merck to run clinical trials, I'd call that an inappropriate conflict.
Posted by: kevin vranes at April 25, 2006 02:08 PM
Mmm -- further/clarification: Being a "technical writer" doesn't necessarily mean there is not an inappropriate conflict. Hassol may actually have very close access and huge influence over the process, in which case I would see her role here as a conflict. But from what I can tell from the way she is credited on the reports cited, her influence probably doesn't not rise to a level I would be concerned about.
Then again, I was further reflecting on Santer's rant and it struck me that usually statements /that/ defensive arise because somebody is getting too close to the truth. Santer's angry defensiveness rises so far above the norm in the Prometheus comments -- even when Roger does more to piss somebody off than he has here -- that it really makes me wonder about Hassol's role....
Posted by: kevin vranes at April 25, 2006 02:28 PM
Dano posted: "I think laurence and Chris point out, subtly, interesting rhetorical tactics."
I do not pretend to speak for someone else (Chris) in this case, but I will say that I'm not sure what "rhetorical tactic" you are are referring to here.
Let me just say that my above statements about possessing evidence before bringing up "conflict of interest" issues applies WHOEVER the person in question may be.
If you think that this is simply some rhetorical tactic that I was pursuing to argue that Ms. Hassol should be treated differently than Mr. Cooney with regard to "conflict of interest", you are simply mistaken.
You are entitled to believe anything you want about my motives here, but I ACTUALLY believe it is critically important in EVERY potential conflict of interest case to have a GOOD reason for pursuing a case (based on evidence of impropriety) before even hinting that someone might be guilty of such.
As I stated above, I am satisfied from what Roger has said that he has actually met this more stringent standard (though he and I might still disagree with what the minimum standard SHOULD be), but my argument for adherence to such a standard was NOT simply part of some rhetorical game.
Sure, it is important to make certain that there is not a double standard with regard to "conflict of interest."
But I'd say that it is at least equally important to ensure that people's careers and lives are not being unfairly tainted -- or even ruined, in some cases.
Posted by: laurence jewett at April 25, 2006 03:00 PM
Just as an aside, Prometheus posts show up relatively frequently on the EPA "climate news update," an informal, daily, RSS-like collection of links for EPA staff to news stories and editorials related to climate change. It's interesting to think about in what ways Prometheus might legitimately be considered part of "the press" or "the media" when raising a potential conflict of interest or discussing a conflict-of-interest story.
Posted by: Chris Weaver at April 25, 2006 03:29 PM
Whoops! Sorry, laurence, I was agreeing with your posts and not referring to something _you_ were rhetoricizing (you were pointing out something was what I was saying). The perils of having a part-time editor for my comments. Apologies.
Posted by: Dano at April 25, 2006 04:21 PM
Chris W - you bring up a good point. I'm not sure where Roger stands on this, but I and a lot of bloggers consider ourselves part of a "microjournalism" movement. I usually try to keep that in mind whenever I post here or on scienceblogs.com
Posted by: kevin vranes at April 25, 2006 05:48 PM
I have never thought of Prometheus as "journalism." Though sometimes we have "reported" stuff here. It is in my view much more like an editorial/op-ed page.
Whatever we are, we strive for 100% accuracy in what we discuss, so in that sense I suppose we are like many journalists. When we make inevitable mistakes we correct them, and anyone that has a different view, including those whose work is discussed here has an invitation to contribute or respond.
Suggestions and recommendations are always welcomed.
Posted by: Roger Pielke Jr. at April 25, 2006 06:02 PM
Roger, if you consider Cooney's edits to have been improper, then obviously by equating his behavior to Hassol's you consider her behavior to have been improper.
Thus Santer's response is completely warrented as in his professional observation of her work he does not consider her editing work to have been improper.
In the case of Cooney, we clearly see that he has injected his political views into his editing. In the case of Hassol, you have shown no such thing, indeed Santer strongly denies it. EVEN if you believed this to be the case, the technical members of the committee had final approval of Hassol's work, while Cooney's edits were the final word.
The voice of authority is merely a flak, but the source of all knowledge is a policy making position. Clearly Hassol was acting in the former capacity, but Cooney in the latter.
Finally, unless you can show that the NRC panel saw the versions of the CCSP Strategic Plan before Cooneys edits and after you really can say very little about the NRC approval or the plan, which in many regards was grudging especially with respect to political influence on the program.
Posted by: Eli Rabett at April 25, 2006 08:31 PM
Eli- I think that you guys have flogged this dead horse pretty well. For the Nth time on this thread, I have not commented on the substance of Ms. Hassol's role on the committee. I have asked the question of whether being compensated simultaneously by the US government to work on a scientific report and a group focused on advocacy related to the science discussed in that report represents at least the appearance of a conflict of interest. In just about any realm of science/decision making, this is a fair question to ask under similar circumstances. Since very few actually want to address this issue, I assume that it they would begrudgingly agree.
I will admit to some surprise at the intensity of reponses to this issue among some, on what is really a pretty run-of-the-mill issue in my view, with far less significance than, say, the issues of conflict-of-interest I have raised in the past related to IPCC, FDA, NRC, Bioethics Council, and national science academies. The responses on this thread are far more telling than whatever issues might arise as a result of Ms. Hassol's potential conflict of interest. And for that reason alone, this has been an illuminating set of exchanges. As far as the question that I opened the discussion with, it is safe to say that an answer has been provided.
Posted by: Roger Pielke Jr. at April 25, 2006 10:41 PM
Sorry Roger, you can't declare confusion and go home. You did not simply raise an issue over whether Ms. Hassol had a conflict of interest, you explicitly discussed her behavior in the context of a case where you believe that a government official behaved improperly. Moreover you were quite aware that your view is shared by many others. By associating one case with the other you implicitly associated an improper behavior with Ms. Hassol's behavior.
Moreover, Ms. Hassol's views were quite well known to the committee which hired her, and the climate science community in general, and you can show nothing that she did which was improper. In the case of Cooney there are issues on which his actions and statements have, as you said, been shown to be improper and moreover wrong. Admittedly you have attempted to elide the last point by saying that his actions/edits were irrelevant. Do you think his actions with respect to the US Climate Action Report were irrelevant?
Posted by: Eli Rabett at April 25, 2006 11:33 PM
Relevant to this discussion:
Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr. at April 26, 2006 08:33 AM
I should have clarified by saying that when Prometheus posts are included in the EPA climate news roundup (including this post on conflict of interest, interestingly), they are grouped under the "opinion/editorial" heading.
"Microjournalism" is a pretty apt description. Clearly microjournalism and the universe of macrojournalism are bleeding into each other more and more ...
Posted by: Chris Weaver at April 26, 2006 08:51 AM
If we first take it as a given that there is a double standard that favors one side, my question is so what.
If I am in a contest and I want to succeed then I would be happy if I had an advantage over my competitor. I would make sure that I retained this competitive edge, and I would scream foul if the situation were reversed.
This is standard operating procedure for some people in some professions. There are many attorneys, lobbyists and activists would say honestly that this is not fair, but if it benefited them they would be happy about it.
Posted by: Joseph O'Sullivan at April 27, 2006 08:43 PM
One only has to look at the HBO Special itself to find evidence of Dr. Pielke's point of double standard. Perhaps Mr. Rabett and others should do that.
There are other examples, but Dr Trenberth is featured in this documentary; and he was allowed or edited to allow free reassertion of his expressed or implied belief that the scientific evidence conclusively links storm strength with AGW. That controversial position has been discussed on both Prometheus and RC.
Drs Hansen and Schneider also get their stage, along with many other AGW proponents (again without balancing or opposing view). Their commentaries are often juxtaposed with extreme individual WEATHER events, 100+ year "before and after" photos, high-end warming/melting estimates, and a ludicrously simplified greenhouse analogy, all used liberally to scare the viewer in the first half* of this broadcast. Quite simply, the editing of the first part of this show, can easily be characterized as AGW Alarmist -- an unrefuted, expressed or implied view of AGW as an imminent disaster in the making.
Getting back to the point of this thread, the fingerprints of advocacy of Ms Hassol and Ms David are obvious to those with more than a modest background in the science -- they are not scientists, and it shows in the product that they produced and released. The product itself is evidence of Dr Pielke's submission of a double-standard in the press or viewership that review and embrace the first half content of this audio-video report. I suspect that Dr Hansen himself would be critical of this program, the 1st half is a clear example of the scare/alarmist positions that he (and more recently, the BBC) has warned against recently. BUT, I believe this is a product funded primarily from the private sector -- and private sector funded propaganda happens all the time.
Posted by: McCall at April 29, 2006 11:08 AM
Correction start of para 3: Drs Kennedy (Science Mag) and Schneider (Stanford) get their stage -- Dr Hansen was not in this program, he was in the Global Dimming special (also broadcast recently).
My opinion/speculation of how Dr Hansen might view "Too HOT ..." , does not change.
Posted by: McCall at April 29, 2006 11:42 AM
BTW, Ms Hassol's own advocacy is overt; she is included herself as a (non-scientist -- my insert) author/spokesperson, near the middle of the alarmist portion of the Too HOT special.
Posted by: McCall at April 29, 2006 11:49 AM