17 January 2010

IPCC and Conflict of Interest: Anything Goes

The Sunday Telegraph has an interesting story on TERI-Europe and Rajendra Pachauri, chairman of the IPCC, uncovering what TERI admits are accounting "anomalies" -- never a good thing to hear when financial accounting is concerned. I will have more to say on that, but in this post I'd like to focus on a very interesting statement in the article on the UN and IPCC policies for conflict of interest:
Because Dr Pachauri's role at the IPCC is unpaid – although he does receive tens of thousands of pounds in travel expenses – he is exempt along with other panel members from declaring outside interests with the UN.
As far as I have been able to discern, the IPCC has no policy governing conflict of interests. This is remarkable, given the importance of the IPCC to international climate policy as well as the importance that has been given in recent years to conflicts of interest in scientific advice. The question that needs to be put to the IPCC is: why should it be exempt from adhering to conflict of interest policies that are deemed appropriate in every other important area of scientific advice?

Last month I posted up the standards of conduct regarding conflict of interest for the IPCC's parent bodies: the United Nations and World Meteorological Organization. Based on what the Sunday Telegraph has reported the leadership of the IPCC falls through a bureaucratic loophole and is not accountable to UN or WMO conflict of interest policies. In fact, it appears that there are no such policies governing the IPCC -- which is remarkable.

Instituting such policies will be difficult as any reasonable conflict of interest policies will necessarily lead to some very uncomfortable questions about its current chairman, as well as others in leadership positions. There is no doubt based on publicly available information that Dr. Pachauri has material conflcits of interest as IPCC chair. At the same time, unless the IPCC sets forth such policies, it will continue to hang exposed like a virtual pinata, getting whacked repeatedly and justifiably for its "anything goes" approach. For the IPCC the better course is to clean up its act sooner rather than later, as uncomfortable as that might be in the short term.