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Earth science wrestles with conflict-of-interest policies

June 24, 2015 This article courtesy of Nature News.

Industry-funding controversies highlight lack of standards among field’s journals.

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The undisclosed industry ties of some authors of Earth-science papers have raised ethical questions about how the field handles conflicts of interest. The cases of global-warming sceptic Willie Soon and hydrologist Donald Siegel have inspired calls for a uniform policy on reporting funding from entities that have an interest in the outcome of research.

“The Earth-science community doesn’t really have a coherent set of policies for dealing with this,” says Naomi Oreskes, a science historian at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, who co-authored a 12 June commentary in Environmental Science & Technology calling for stronger disclosure rules.

Soon, a solar physicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics co-authored a 2010 paper on climate-change policy in Ecology Law Currents, but he did not disclose funding from Southern Company, an electricity provider in Atlanta, Georgia. The company has lobbied against stronger regulations to limit greenhouse-gas emissions.

The journal’s editors told the Climate Investigations Center (CIC), a watchdog group in Alexandra, Virginia, that they do not have a conflict-of-interest policy, but are “exploring the possibility”.

Soon also published a study in March in Nature Geoscience on atmospheric conditions during the Little Ice Age — a 500-year cool period that began around the 1400s — without reporting his funding. Nature Publishing Group (which also publishes Nature) says that Soon complied with its policies, which require the disclosure of financial ties that are relevant to the research in question.

But even if the study had little relevance to climate policy, Oreskes says Soon’s funders benefit from any paper in a peer-reviewed journal. Such funding relationships can create an unconscious bias and should be reported, she says.

Still, having disclosure policies does not guarantee that scientists will abide by them, as the CIC found when it examined other publications that Soon listed as “deliverables” in reports to Southern Company.

In 2009, Soon and others published a study in the Journal of Climate on the variability of monsoons. The journal requires authors to disclose all funding sources and “any financial arrangement with a research sponsor that could give the appearance of a conflict of interest.” Soon’s co-authors acknowledged support from conventional granting agencies. But Soon did not report his funding from Southern Company. After the CIC released documents in February revealing Soon’s industry ties, the journal amended the study to clarify his funding.

In another case, hydrologist Donald Siegel of Syracuse University in New York came under fire for a study that concluded that fracking — which uses pressurized fluids to shatter rock and release trapped natural gas — had not contaminated groundwater in Pennsylvania. Siegel did not disclose that the Chesapeake Energy Corporation of Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, had paid him and provided the water samples that his team analysed. Environmental Science & Technology, which published the analysis, posted a correction in April after the media revealed Siegel’s links to the company.

Siegel says that he thought that this relationship was obvious, because he was working on a summer contract with the company’s consultants, some of whom were listed as co-authors. “I never really anticipated this, but perhaps I was naive,” Siegel says. “Because of the public nature of some of this science, I think we probably need a much tighter rein on what disclosure is.”

Disclosure demands are coming from both sides of the aisle: climate sceptics have objected to a Nature Climate Change study that analysed some of the US Environmental Protection Agency’s greenhouse-gas regulations, because it was written by researchers who have received grants from the agency — even though the grants are listed in a public database.

Some experts suggest that Earth scientists should look to the biomedical community for guidance. Many biomedical journals require authors to fill out a common disclosure form that publishers developed in 1978 and have continued to update. And universities and hospitals often require medical researchers to report each year on their financial arrangements with industry.

Eric Campbell, a sociologist at Harvard’s Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, says that biomedical scientists, funding agencies and journals have better-established disclosure policies because their work often involves human participants, and because of the strong financial ties between academia and the pharmaceutical industry.

There are no plans yet for the Earth-science community to develop disclosure standards. But there may be nascent backing for such an effort. Véronique Kiermer, director of author and reviewer services at Nature Publishing Group, says that the publisher “would be supportive of discussions in the Earth-sciences community about the specific challenges of the field and a framework for the standards of transparency it requires.”

Campbell says that such a group discussion would be useful. “You don’t want the individual with the conflict making decisions about what they should do about it.”

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