19 April 2011

The IPCC's Proposed COI Policy

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has put forward a surprisingly rigorous proposal for handling actual and perceived conflicts of interest (PDF, background paper here in PDF).  The proposal has a few notable weak spots in its plans for adjudication and disclosure, but represents a serious effort to fix this notable gap in IPCC procedures. If implemented as written the proposal will likely lead to a considerable degree of turnover in the existing IPCC leadership, authors and staff, due to the rigor of the policy but also the requirement for disclosure that it mandates.

The proposal defines a conflict of interest as follows:
A “conflict of interest” refers to any current financial or other interest which could: i) significantly impair, or could appear to impair, the individual’s objectivity in carrying out his or her duties and responsibilities for the IPCC, or ii) create an unfair advantage, or appear to create an unfair advantage, for any person or organization. For the purposes of this policy, the appearance of a conflict of interest - an “apparent conflict of interest” - is one in which circumstances could lead a reasonable person to question an individual’s objectivity or question whether an unfair advantage has been created.

The conflict of interest requirements in this policy are not designed to include an assessment of one's actual behaviour or character, one's ability to act objectively despite the conflicting interest, or one's relative insensitivity to particular amounts of specific assets because of one's personal wealth. The requirements are designed to eliminate situations involving real or apparent conflicts of interest, and thereby to protect the individual, the organization, and the public interest. Those contributing to IPCC products should not be placed in a situation where others could reasonably question, and perhaps discount or dismiss, the work of the IPCC simply because of the existence, or the apparent existence, of conflicting interests.
The proposal focuses on the following individuals:
the IPCC Chair, Vice Chairs, Working Group and Task Force Co-chairs and other members of the IPCC Bureau), authors with responsibilities for report content (Coordinating Lead Authors, Lead Authors and Review Editors) and the staff of the Technical Support Units (TSU’s)
The proposed policy requires a considerable degree of disclosure:
In ascertaining the possible presence of a conflict of interest, the following kinds of financial interests will be disclosed and reviewed: employment relationships (including private and public sector employment and self-employment); consulting relationships (including working in commercial or professional consulting or service arrangements, serving on scientific and technical advisory boards, serving as an expert witness in litigation, and providing services in exchange for honorariums and expense reimbursement); directorships; stocks, bonds, and other financial instruments and investments including partnerships; real estate investments; patents, copyrights, and other intellectual property interests; commercial business ownership and investment interests; research funding and other forms of research support.

All significant and relevant non-financial interests should be disclosed. These include any associations with organisations with an interest in the topic of the IPCC report or product to which the individual is contributing. These may include government advisory committees, nondepartmental public bodies, charities or non-governmental organisations. Such associations are not necessarily incompatible with participation in IPCC, but it is important that they are disclosed. All interests that might undermine the credibility of the IPCC report or product if they were made public during or after its preparation should be disclosed.
Here the proposal gets a little opaque.  The disclosed information will be considered by a newly appointed committee which will render judgments on the ability of the individual to serve on the IPCC.  This committee will apparently work in secret and its deliberations will not be made public, and nor will the disclosures.  This is problematic.  The IPCC will not solve its transparency problems by creating a star chamber deeper in its bureaucracy.

In 2009 the Bipartisan Policy Center issued a report on scientific committee empanelment (PDF here, on which I served) and explicitly addressed this issue.  We sought to maintain a balance between the need for public transparency and the privacy of individuals.  Here is what we said in that report:
Not only the government, but also the public needs more information to determine whether a conflict or bias exists and has been appropriately handled. To build public trust through transparency, much more information on federal advisory committee members needs to be available than is now the case.

Obviously, a balance must be struck between the value of public information and privacy concerns. And public disclosure must not be so extensive that it greatly reduces the number of scientists willing to serve on committees. Federal agencies should monitor whether new requirements are making it harder to attract committee members. But disclosure is becoming more routine – in scientific journals and at universities, for example – and the government should not be a last bastion of secrecy.

One possibility would be for federal agencies to make publicly available all the information on a panelist’s disclosure form except the precise dollar amounts of their stock holdings or compensation and any information on the finances of their spouse or dependent children. At the same time, the agency would disclose the member’s educational background and scientific credentials. Ideally, all of this information would be released when committee members’ names were put up on the Web for public comment.
A second weak spot  in the proposal is that it relies entirely on self-disclosure.  The policies have no contingency for false, incomplete or misleading reporting.  This creates risks for both the organization and its participants.  Because the disclosures are not released in any manner to the public, there is every incentive for participants to under-report potential conflicts.

The IPCC can deal with this in part by publishing a public version of the the disclosure forms (e.g., without specific financial information but with institutional relationships intact).  At a minimum, participants should be required to attest that their self-disclosure is accurate and if it is determined to be inaccurate, this would disqualify the individual from participating in the IPCC.  Absent some sanction for filing a misleading or incorrect disclosure form, the procedure risks becoming a formality with little meaning.  Having served on NRC committees in the past I have seen unsanctioned self-disclosure in action.

Finally, the IPCC is silent on what to do with current participants who are in violation of the guidelines for conflicts of interest in this proposal.  As might be expected of an organization that has operated for several decades with no COI policies, such conflicts are rife in the organization, including its leader Rajendra Pachauri who has a wheelbarrow full of actual and potential conflicts.  How will the proposal be phased in?

The IPCC should be commended for taking the recommendation of the InterAcademy Council seriously.  We should be encouraged by the IPCC's initial steps forward on this issue, and the organization should be encouraged to keeping moving in the right direction.  At the same time, its work on this topic is not done yet, it has only just begun.