by Judith Curry
The current issues surrounding conflict of interest guidelines for the IPCC are summarized in this recent news release from the U.S. House Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight:
Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight Chairman Paul Broun (R-GA) today sent a letter to United Nations (UN) Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, calling for the adoption of a Conflict of Interest Policy for the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
“Despite my previous requests for the IPCC to adopt and enforce more stringent policies related to conflicts of interest and the use and citation of ‘gray literature,’ the IPCC has delayed action.”
In the letter, Broun wrote that it is “imperative for the IPCC to adopt a rigorous conflict of interest policy before its 34th Session, tentatively scheduled to take place in January 2012.”
What is a conflict of interest?
The Wikipedia defines conflict of interest in the following way:
A conflict of interest can only exist if a person or testimony is entrusted with some impartiality; a modicum of trust is necessary to create it. The presence of a conflict of interest is independent from the execution of impropriety. Therefore, a conflict of interest can be discovered and voluntarily defused before any corruption occurs.
COI is sometimes termed competition of interest rather than “conflict”, emphasizing a connotation of natural competition between valid interests rather than violent conflict with its connotation of victimhood and unfair aggression.
There is a term used in the UK “prejudicial interest,” which is described by the Wikipedia as: In UK local authority politics, the term prejudicial interest is used to describe the situation whereby a councillor has an interest in a topic under debate that may affect their ability to fairly and objectively consider the subject.
For a non-western view on conflict of interest, see this report on Managing Conflict of Interest from the ABD/OECD Anti-Corruption Initiative for Asia and the Pacific: The Initiative’s member governments are convinced that, to reduce the risk of corruption, conflicts of interest must be identified, avoided, and managed, and the policy frameworks and tools for detecting, avoiding, and managing conflicts of interest must be strengthened in many countries in the Asia-Pacific region.
Additional resources providing multi-cultural views on conflicts of interest can be found here A list of Conflict of Interest publications
There seems to be a fairly common global understanding of conflict of interest and how it can lead to corruption.
COI and the UN
Conflict management is a key element of the mission of the United Nations. In terms of broad COI policies for the UN, here is what I have been able to find:
- 1996 General Assembly document on action against corruption, which includes a statement on conflict of interest
- 2003 presentation on COI issues is provided by the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs
- 2006 Policy on Financial Disclosures and Declaration of Interests Statement for UN staff members
As an example of broader COI problems at the UN, see this recent article that states “Recent reports show UN Agencies increasingly beset by corporate influence, lacking oversight.”
The parent organizations of the IPCC within the UN — the UNEP and WMO — both have COI guidelines. The WMO addresses this in the context of a broader Code of Ethics document. The WMO’s code of ethics requires staff to avoid any conflict of interest, or appearance of conflict of interest, by: (1) disclosing in advance possible conflicts of interest that might arise; (2) refraining from acting on any matter in which they, someone with whom they have a close relationship, or someone from whom they are seeking a benefit or favor, has a special interest; and (3) refraining from associating with the management holding financial interest in any profit-seeking or other concern that might benefit by reason of their position in the WMO.
COI and the IPCC
Over the course of its history, the IPCC has had no formal COI policy or guidelines. The IAC report notes that in the absence of COI policy for the IPCC, The professional staff members of the IPCC Secretariat are employees of WMO and/or UNEP and are subject to their disclosure and ethics policies. In particular, all IPCC Secretariat staff in Geneva, except for the Deputy Secretary, are WMO employees and therefore are required to follow the WMO code of ethics; the IPCC Deputy Secretary follows UN staff regulations; and the IPCC Secretary must comply with the rules for both UN and WMO staff because the Secretary is seconded from UNEP and WMO.
The only COI policy currently in place for the IPCC itself is this informal guidance document for WG1, dated 10 October 2010:
As an overarching principle, in WGI the practice of self-declaration of CoI and self-policing is exercised. We rely on your professionalism, common sense and honesty. WGI Co-Chairs, Vice-Chairs, the WGI TSU and CLAs, LAs, and REs of AR5 will receive a form created by the WGI TSU, in which they declare real, perceived or potential CoIs they may have identified with respect to their function and responsibilities in IPCC. The information that you submit on this form is for the WGI Co-Chairs only, will be held at the WGI TSU, and can be updated by you at any time. The TSU will contact the holders of office and functions in WGI once a year and request confirmation and updates of the information.
Conflict of interest issues was one of the focus topics of the InterAcademy Council (IAC) Review of the IPCC.
The lack of a conflict-of-interest and disclosure policy for IPCC leaders and Lead Authors was a concern raised by a number of individuals who were interviewed by the Committee or provided written input. Questions about potential conflicts of interest, for example, have been raised about the IPCC Chair’s service as an adviser to, and board member of, for-profit energy companies, and about the practice of scientists responsible for writing IPCC assessments reviewing their own work. The Committee did not investigate the basis of these claims, which is beyond the mandate of this review. However, the Committee believes that the nature of the IPCC’s task (i.e., in presenting a series of expert judgments on issues of great societal relevance) demands that the IPCC pay special attention to issues of independence and bias to maintain the integrity of, and public confidence in, its results.
The IAC Report recommended that:
Recommendation. The IPCC should develop and adopt a rigorous conflict-of-interest policy that applies to all individuals directly involved in the preparation of IPCC reports, including senior IPCC leadership (IPCC Chair and Vice Chairs), authors with responsibilities for report content (i.e., Working Group Co-chairs, Coordinating Lead Authors, and Lead Authors), Review Editors, and technical staff directly involved in report preparation (e.g., staff of Technical Support Units and the IPCC Secretariat).
The IPCC responded to the IAC recommendations with this document. Excerpts:
The overall purpose of this policy is to protect the legitimacy, integrity, trust, and credibility of the IPCC and of those directly involved in the preparation of reports, and its activities. This policy is principles-based and does not provide an exhaustive list of criteria for the identification of such conflicts. The Panel recognizes the commitment and dedication of those who participate in IPCC activities. The policy should maintain the balance between the need to minimise the reporting burden, and to ensure the integrity of the IPCC process. In this way, it seeks to encourage participation and to ensure that the representativeness and geographic balance of the Panel is not impaired whilst continuing to build and maintain public trust.
This policy applies to senior IPCC leadership (the IPCC Chair, Vice Chairs, Working Group and Task Force Co-Chairs), other members of the IPCC Bureau and members of the Task Force Bureau, authors with responsibilities for report content (Coordinating Lead Authors, Lead Authors), Review Editors and the professional staff of the Technical Support Units (TSUs).
Conflict of interest policies in scientific assessment bodies typically make a distinction between “conflict of interest” and “bias,” which refers to a point of view or perspective that is strongly held regarding a particular issue or set of issues. In the case of author and review teams, bias can and should be managed through the selection of a balance of perspectives. For example, it is expected that IPCC author teams will include individuals with different perspectives and affiliations. Those involved in selecting authors will need to strive for an author team composition that reflects a balance of expertise and perspectives, such that IPCC products are comprehensive, objective, and neutral with respect to policy. In selecting these individuals, care must be taken to ensure that biases can be balanced where they exist. In contrast, conflict of interest exists where an individual could secure a direct and material gain through outcomes in an IPCC product. Holding a view that one believes to be correct, but that one does not stand to gain from personally is not a conflict of interest.
To prevent situations in which a conflict of interest may arise, individuals directly involved in or leading the preparation of IPCC reports should avoid being in a position to approve, adopt, or accept on behalf of any government the text in which he/she was directly involved.
Annex A: Implementation
To be developed under the extended mandate of the Conflict of Interest Policy Task Group
Annex B: Conflict of Interest Disclosure Form
To be developed under the extended mandate of the Conflict of Interest Policy Task Group
So the IPCC has taken a first step towards developing a COI policy. The policy is described by this press release from the IPCC as:
A modern and forward-looking conflict of interest policy, aimed at maximizing transparency and assuring the credibility of IPCC products and assessments was also adopted.
Whatever COI policy actually emerges will not be in place to influence the AR5, as per this post at ClimateAudit.
Managing conflicts of interest
So how should conflicts of interest be managed for the IPCC? The Wikipedia lists the following strategies:
- Removal. The best way to handle conflicts is to avoid them entirely
- Disclosure. Pertains primarily to financial interests
- Recusal. Those with conflicts are expected to abstain from decisions where a conflict exists.
- Third party evaluations. Hire an independent firm (a third party), well-qualified to evaluate such matters.
- Code of ethics. Codes of ethics help to minimize problems with conflicts of interests because they can spell out the extent to which such conflicts should be avoided, and what the parties should do where such conflicts are permitted by a code of ethics.
Many government agencies, companies, and NGOs have some sort of conflict of interest statements. What makes sense for the IPCC? Apart from overt financial conflicts of interest apparent in WG III, the COI issues facing WG I and II are more subtle, perhaps better characterized by prejudicial interest. Prejudicial interest in this context falls into a gray area where ethics and public perception are more relevant.
In the context of the assessment process itself, COI guidelines adopted by the U.S. National Academies are a useful reference. From the IAC report:
In developing such a policy, the IPCC may want to consider features of the NRC policy. These include:
• Distinguishing between strong points of view (i.e.,biases) that can be balanced and conflicts of interest that should be avoided unless determined to be unavoidable
• Differentiating between current conflicts, where the candidate’s current interests could be directly and predictably affected by the outcome of the report, and potential conflicts of interest
• Considering a range of relevant financial interests, such as employment and consulting relationships; ownership of stocks, bonds, and other investments; fiduciary responsibilities; patents and copyrights; commercial business ownership and investment interests; honoraria; and research funding
• Judging the extent to which an author or Review Editor would be reviewing his or her own work, or that of his or her immediate employer
• Examining indications of a fixed position on a particular issue revealed through public statements (e.g., testimony, speeches, interviews), publications (e.g., articles, books), or personal or professional activities
• Maintaining up-to-date confidential disclosure forms and participating in regular, confidential discussions of conflict of interest and balance for the major components of each report
JC comments. It is hard to imagine how the whole issue of COI for the IPCC was ignored until 2010, in the wake of climategate and questions surrounding Pachauri’s conflicts of interest that were spawned from Himalaya-gate. The IAC has provided superb recommendations and guidelines to the IPCC for proceeding on this issue. The IPCC is moving slowly in the right direction, however too slowly for this to have any impact on the AR5. The IPCC needs to start adopting modern technologies so that it can actually get things done in between plenary meetings. Without an active COI policy in place for AR5, the credibility of the resultant assessment reports will be substantially compromised.
With regards to WGIII, the conflicts of interest may be so overwhelming that they cannot be managed in any sensible way. IMO qualified people from Greenpeace and Exxon-Mobil should be able to participate in the IPCC as reviewers or possibly as contributing authors, but they should not be participating as Lead Authors.