09 February 2010


The New York Times has an article today about the issue of conflicts of interest and Dr. Rajendra Pachauri, head of the IPCC. I thought that it might be worth sharing what the U.S. National Academy of Sciences says about conflicts of interest, as an example of how one leading scientific advisory body sees the issue as related to advice related to government regulation (full document here in PDF). If the IPCC decided today to adopt the NAS guidelines, would Dr. Pachauri be judged to have conflict(s) of interest? I think that the answer is pretty obvious.
It is essential that the work of committees of the institution used in the development of reports not be compromised by any significant conflict of interest. For this purpose, the term "conflict of interest" means any financial or other interest which conflicts with the service of the individual because it (1) could significantly impair the individual's objectivity or (2) could create an unfair competitive advantage for any person or organization. Except for those situations in which the institution determines that a conflict of interest is unavoidable and promptly and publicly discloses the conflict of interest, no individual can be appointed to serve (or continue to serve) on a committee of the institution used in the development of reports if the individual has a conflict of interest that is relevant to the functions to be performed.

The term "conflict of interest" means something more than individual bias. There must be an interest, ordinarily financial, that could be directly affected by the work of the committee.

Conflict of interest requirements are objective and prophylactic. They are not an assessment of one's actual behavior or character, one's ability to act objectively despite the conflicting interest, or one's relative insensitivity to particular dollar amounts of specific assets because of one's personal wealth. Conflict of interest requirements are objective standards designed to eliminate certain specific, potentially compromising situations from arising, and thereby to protect the individual, the other members of the committee, the institution, and the public interest. The individual, the committee, and the institution should not be placed in a situation where others could reasonably question, and perhaps discount or dismiss, the work of the committee simply because of the existence of conflicting interests.

The term "conflict of interest" applies only to current interests. It does not apply to past interests that have expired, no longer exist, and cannot reasonably affect current behavior. Nor does it apply to possible interests that may arise in the future but do not currently exist, because such future interests are inherently speculative and uncertain. For example, a pending formal or informal application for a particular job is a current interest, but the mere possibility that one might apply for such a job in the future is not a current interest.

The term "conflict of interest" applies not only to the personal interests of the individual but also to the interests of others with whom the individual has substantial common financial interests if these interests are relevant to the functions to be performed. Thus, in assessing an individual's potential conflicts of interest, consideration must be given not only to the interests of the individual but also to the interests of the individual's spouse and minor children, the individual's employer, the individual's business partners, and others with whom the individual has substantial common financial interests. Consideration must also be given to the interests of those for whom one is acting in a fiduciary or similar capacity (e.g., being an officer or director of a corporation, whether profit or nonprofit, or serving as a trustee).

This disclosure form is used for any committee that will be used by the institution in the development of one or more reports to be provided by the institution to a sponsoring agency for use in a government regulatory process. For such projects, the focus of the conflict of interest inquiry is on the identification and assessment of any interests that may be directly affected by the use of such reports in the regulatory process.

For example, if this institution were conducting a study of proposed modifications in the government regulation of a particular application of biotechnology, the focus of the conflict of interest inquiry would be on the identification and assessment of any interests that would be directly affected by that regulatory process if the institution's report were to provide the basis for regulatory action or inaction. The concern is that if an individual (or others with whom the individual has substantial common financial interests) has specific interests that could be directly affected by the regulatory process, the individual's objectivity could be impaired.

Such interests could include an individual's stock holdings in excess of $10,000 in a potentially affected biotechnology company or being an officer, director, or employee of the company. Serving as a consultant to the company could constitute such an interest if the consulting relationship with the company could be directly affected or is directly related to the subject matter of the regulatory process.

An individual's other possible interests might include, for example, relevant patents and other forms of intellectual property, serving as an expert witness in litigation directly related to the subject matter of the regulatory process, or receiving research funding from a party that would be directly affected by the regulatory process if the research funding could be directly affected or is directly related to the subject matter of the regulatory process and the right to independently conduct and publish the results of this research is limited by the sponsor. Consideration would also need to be given to the interests of others with whom the individual has substantial common financial interests -- particularly spouses, employers, clients, and business or research partners.


  1. When the emperor has a COI problem and discovered not to be wearing any new clothes, the next step is CYA.

  2. But if you read this at face value, no NAS reports would say "more research is needed" because that would be good for the employers of research scientists and therefore no researchers would be on NAS panels.
    Yet almost every NAS report says that more research is needed. There seem to be implicit exceptions to these COI principles.

  3. So the New York Times has deigned to recognize the issue? Let's see how they handle it:

    "The accusations of errors in the panel’s report — most originating from two right-leaning British papers..."

    Ahh... well.... right-leaning! That's all you need to know, isn't it? I don't recall ad hominem being in The Elements of Style.

  4. Yeah, questioning the motivations of the British papers pretty much tells you where the NYT comes down on the issue. In any case, the "right-leaning" British papers didn't originate the accusations, they reported problems that had already been identified elsewhere.

    Curiously, some of the NYT blogs (Tierney and Revkin) have been covering the IPCC meltdown in real time.

  5. Dr. Pachauri insists that he had no conflicts of interest and I believe him. As long as the interests of the IPCC were perfectly aligned with the firms that were paying for his consultation there could be no conflict of interest. The big problem is that alignment; conflict would be an improvement.

    The problem I have is that while the IPCC was promoting a political agenda that would affect wealth redistribution around the world they were hiding behind a fig leaf of science. The Global Warming advocates have not only damaged the credibility of the IPCC they have damaged the reputation of science.

  6. objective and prophylactic? I think that could be phrased better.

  7. Because of the glacier incident in the IPCC, and not any alleged conflict of interest (I do conflict of interest analysis as ethics attorney and these appear rather attenuated). To have such a flagrant and silly error in the report for 10 years is an immense gift to climate change deniers and Dr. Pachauri should take responsibility for the error and resign.

    The N.Y. Times is if anything dominated by climate sceptics (Tierney's and Dubner's blogs and the reporting on the science page has been hostile to the IPCC the last two years - the editorial side of the paper and Krugman of course have a different view).

    I would advise you, as it will surely come out anyway, that you disclose an consulting arrangements you have either directly with corporations or interest groups, or indirectly through the "Breakthrough Institute."

    Finally, you might find Dr. Caldeira's reaction (Calderia was featured in Dubner's and Leavitt's Superfreakonmics on the chapter on global warming and why it is not a big deal) interesting to you being quoted in the N.Y. Times on this article.

    UPDATE: Climate scientist Ken Caldeira has just sent me an email titled, “I can’t believe the New York Times has done it again …” that reads in its entirety:


    Does Roger Pielke Jr really believe that Pachauri is exaggerating the climate change problem in order to obtain more funds for his nonprofit research center?

    If Pielke is going to make insinuations in the New York Times about the ethics of Dr Pachauri, he owes it to us to make his beliefs clear. He should state clearly which of the following two statements he believes:

    (a) Dr Rajendra Pachauri is exaggerating the climate change problem in order to obtain more funds for his nonprofit research center.

    (b) Dr Rajendra Pachauri is not exaggerating the climate change problem in order to obtain more funds for his nonprofit research center.

    For a man with a $49,000 salary, donating all of his consulting fees to nonprofit organizations would ordinarily be seen as a sign of professional integrity and dedication. It is outrageous that Pielke attempts to turn this around and use it to insinuate an ethical lapse. It makes one wonder about Pielke’s motives.

    PS. You can quote this if you would like….

    One of the reason I have become so pessimistic about this issue (I am afraid we are about to reenact Easter Island on a Planetary scale for this and other environmental problems) is the extreme polarization that has gone on regarding both sides of this issue in the Anglo-Saxon countries. (See John Quiggin, an economist, discussion of the issue in Australia on his blog.

    Meanwhile the records snow fall away here in Virginia.

  8. Mr Rickster.

    How is it that you, and your friend seek simple answers to a question, that is not entirely straightforward?

    You have a situation, in which a person of substantial power puts himself in positions which engender conflicts of interest. And then you attempt to resolve it, by examining motives?

    Your argument is greatly weakened by this mere fact. Pachauri is more than welcome to use his considerable prestige and inner working knowledge of the IPCC, let's say in his capacity as former IPCC chief, if he did step down at any point after publication of the last report. Which he did not. The consultancy roles that he serves in various organizations for would have been equally satisfactory even with this trajectory. And far less problematic for him, and us.

    One is therefore forced to conclude that this man has bought into the deplorable culture that is ever-increasing, that conflicts of interest do not exist, and a revolving door between policy/agenda making and executive action is just the very fine thing that everyone is supposed to be happy with. He is just waiting for this 'storm' to blow over, by brazening it out.

    In addition, your friend, in his email, is throwing readers here a trick question. He is offering Dr Pielke choice (b)i.e., " Dr. Pachauri is not exaggerating the climate change problem...". This is not a valid choice at all.

    Pachauri is exaggerating the climate change problem. The IPCC AR4 contains confidence levels for its purported conclusions. These should speak for themselves. Pachauri has voiced many of these conclusions repeatedly, in public fora and attempted to rouse action. Why does this man practice this level of advocacy? Many of these public claims have now been discredited beyond repair. Does repeated statement of such claims constitute exaggeration. Remember - Pachauri could have made the same claims, but with caveats and clarifications for uncertainty. He has not done that. You can watch his speeches to confirm this.

    Making claims to the New York Times does not require Dr Pielke to make any beliefs of his clear. For example, I believe Dr Pachauri has many good qualities - he is articulate, he is hard-working, probably more than the vast majority of scientists and activists involved in climate science. That is immaterial - I would still question Dr Pachauri's conflicts.

    Moreover, from your post, I am sure you are not aware of the much of the backstory of TERI or details of its past.

  9. Very interesting defense for Dr. Pachauri by Ken Calderia.

    Those two questions acknowledge that Dr. Pachauri has placed himself in a position of conflict. Roger was right and now the next stage of the investigation is in play.

    The questions also acknowledge that the IPCC’s claims of global warming problems were exaggerated. That Dr. Pachauri’s defenders are now saying that the motives for the exaggerations were not due to corruption leads to the next unanswered question. What were the motives for the exaggerations? My vote doesn’t count for much but Ken Calderia’s questions seem to be setting up a defense of incompetent management.

  10. Arrogance, COI, and “Climategate”

    The embarrassing revelations concerning possible conflicts of interest involving Dr. Rajendra Pachauri, head of the IPCC should not be surprising to anyone who has dealt extensively with well-known scientists. Like successful people in other professions, leading scientists have extremely healthy egos. From this comes arrogance and an insensitivity to the implications of one’s actions. Anyone in a position of such public importance and trust as Dr. Pachauri should recognize that it is not only the fact of a conflict of interest but also the perception of possible COI that can be incredibly damaging. In extensive dealings with COI issues in the academic world I have always applied the ‘how would it look on the front page’ test. In this case Dr. Pachauri and his colleagues have clearly flunked the test.