Confluence (not conflict) of interest

by Judith Curry

The term conflict of interest is pejorative. It is confrontational and presumptive of inappropriate behavior. –  Anne Cappola and Garret FitzGerald

Kip Hansen pointed me to this article in the current issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA)  [link], extended excerpts provided below:

Confluence, Not Conflict of Interest.  Name Change Necessary

Anne R. Cappola and  Garret A. FitzGerald

The primary interest of the biomedical scientific endeavor is to benefit patients and society. Frequently, this primary interest coincides with secondary interests, most commonly financial in nature, at the interface of the investigator’s relationship with a private sponsor, typically a drug or device company or, increasingly, venture capital firms. Academia and the public have become sensitive to how such a secondary interest might be unduly influential, biasing the interpretation of results, exposing patients to harm, and damaging the reputation of an institution and investigator. This concern has prompted efforts to minimize or “manage” such “conflicts of interest” resulting in a plethora of policies at both the local and national level. 

First, the term conflict of interest is pejorative. It is confrontational and presumptive of inappropriate behavior. Rather, the focus should be on the objective, which is to align secondary interests with the primary objective of the endeavor—to benefit patients and society—in a way that minimizes the risk of bias. A better term—indicative of the objective—would be confluence of interest, implying an alignment of primary and secondary interests. In this regard, the individuals and entities liable to bias extend far beyond the investigator and the sponsor; they include departments, research institutes, and universities. The potential for bias also extends to nonprofit funders, such as the National Institutes of Health and foundations, as well as to journals that might, for example, generate advertising revenue from sponsors.

JC comment:  I am so pleased to see someone make this point.  At Georgia Tech, my company CFAN has been the source of many concerns about  ‘conflicts of interest’ that need to be ‘managed.’    I am made to feel like a criminal through all this, when it was Georgia Tech that encouraged me to start a company in 2006 and compete for SBIR/STTR grants, and entrepreneurship is a major part of Georgia Tech’s strategic plan (not to mention the fact that I have not done anything ‘wrong’).  That said, I know that Georgia Tech is better than most universities in this regard, in terms of encouraging entrepreneurship.

Second, disclosure policies have focused on financial gain. However, in academia, the prospect of fame may be even more seductive than fortune. Thus, the outcome of a study may influence publication in a high-impact journal, invitations to speak at conferences, promotion, salary, and space.

JC comment:  Most researchers that I know are driven much more by fame than by personal ‘fortune’ (Shukla seems to be an exception.)  Most academic researchers could make much more money in the private sector.

Estimation of how fame—which again may apply to institutions, funders, and journals—might introduce bias is a considerable challenge. However, even in the case of monetary gain, which can be readily quantitated, bias is complex. A possible strategy is to consider a terrain-mapping approach to potential sources of bias. Much like a heat map of gene expression, a dashboard would express and give weight to elements of fame and fortune on the y-axis, charted against individuals and entities on the x-axis that are likely to gain from the endeavor. Disclosure of such information on institutional websites and its provision in consent forms to participants in trials would help the public to visualize the complexity of such relationships and aid individuals and institutions to promote confluence of primary and secondary interests with the objective of minimizing bias. Irrespective of such efforts, disclosure is necessary but insufficient; it can serve to mitigate, but not to avoid bias.

JC comment:  the fame-fortune terrain mapping idea is a fascinating one.  Calling David Wojick . . .

Fourth, Just as universities foster relationships of their faculty with industry, their responsibility to the public interest behooves them to protect and ensure the independence of their faculty to disseminate the full spectrum of their discoveries, even when they may include uncomfortable truths for the sponsor. Institutions also have an obligation to be governed by their mission, rather than profit, and maximizing profit may not always serve that mission.

Fifth, Academic institutions have a particular responsibility to inculcate, promote, and reward intellectual honesty in ways more imaginative and effective than in the past. Just as scientific discovery is celebrated by prizes and awards and election to societies and organizations, academia needs to celebrate examples of moral courage in the scientific endeavor. These might include predicting and revealing adverse events concealed or denied by industry sponsors or publicly disclosing inappropriate behavior by investigators or institutions. Faculty should be repeatedly educated in their ethical responsibilities, not just to their patients, but also to their students, their colleagues, and their institutions to minimize bias and to serve the primary interest of biomedical research. This might occur as part of the online requirements necessary to retain credentials to function as an academic investigator.

JC comment:  Researchers employed at universities most definitely do NOT get rewarded for moral courage in the scientific endeavor.  Instead, they are rewarded for ‘playing the game.’   I recall, about 5 years ago, talking to a senior administrator at Georgia Tech, informally at a social function.  The words that stuck in my mind are these:  “Judith, you need to learn how to play the game.”  Sorry, no ‘game playing’ for me.

Confluence of interest represents a complex ecosystem that requires development of a uniform approach to minimize bias in clinical research across the academic sector. Such a policy must be at once simple and accessible, capturing the complexity of the relationships while being sufficiently flexible at the individual level not to intrude on the process of innovation.

JC reflections

Once again, the field of medical research provides some important insights into conflicts of interests; for specific concerns related to climate science, see these two previous posts:

I found particularly interest the Conflict of Interest Disclosure made by the authors, Cappola and FitzGerald:

Conflict of Interest Disclosures: The authors have completed and submitted the ICMJE Form for Disclosure of Potential Conflicts of Interest. Dr Cappola reports receiving consulting fees from Biomarin, Mannkind Corporation, and Takeda. Dr FitzGerald reports being the McNeil Professor of Translational Medicine and Therapeutics, a council member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and a member of the National Academy of Medicine biomarker committee; receiving a stipend for being co-chair of the advisory board for Science Translational Medicine; grants from the Harrington Family Foundation and Eli Lilly; consulting fees from Calico and Pfizer, Eli Lilly, Glenmark Pharmaceuticals, and New Haven Pharmaceuticals; serving as chair for the Burroughs Wellcome Foundation review group on regulatory science awards, the Helmholtz Foundation advisory board for the network of cardiovascular science centers, and the PhD program committee of the Wellcome Trust, a section committee of the Royal Society; and serving on the advisory boards of the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation and King’s Health Partners in London. He also serves on the advisory boards of the Clinical and Translational Science Awards held by the University of Connecticut, Harvard, the Medical University of South Carolina, Duke University, and the University of California at San Francisco.

Funding/Support: This work is supported by a grant (UL1 TR000003) from the National Institutes of Health.

Role of the Funder/Sponsor: The National Institutes of Health had no role in the preparation, review, or approval of the manuscript; and decision to submit the manuscript for publication.

Note the distinction between source of funding, and the conflict of interests.  I totally agree that it is appropriate to separate these two items.

I don’t recall ever seeing a conflict of interest disclosure like this attached to a journal article, although I don’t read many articles in medical journals (well, I suppose if you are writing an article about conflict of interest, you had better scrupulously document your own COIs).  Such a ‘core dump’ is an interesting approach to take regarding COI disclosure; any potential source of genuine conflict is lost in a large list of affiliations and the large list puts the potential conflict (funding or otherwise) into perspective.

I totally agree that serving on advisory boards reflects a conflict — oops, a ‘confluence’ – of interest.  Recall a previous post

A scientist serving on the advisory board of a green advocacy group, or a libertarian think tank, reflects a confluence of interest with that group.  Which is the chicken and which is the egg in causing a ‘conflict’ is not clear.  By the same token, a scientist who is offered research funding from an industrial source is viewed as having a confluence of interest with that source.

So, do all these disclosures eliminate bias?  I doubt it, but it can help identify bias.  If you are going to enforce disclosure, I strongly support the manner of disclosure reflected in the JAMA article – separating conflicts of interest and funding disclosures.


69 responses to “Confluence (not conflict) of interest

  1. All the inhabitants of planet Earth share a common confluence of interest.

  2. Another angle that you should look at Judith is the confluence of investments. Funder/Sponsors are often making long-term investments in order to develop certain interests (scientific, political, economical) but so are researchers and research teams in particular (long-term investments in expertise, careers etc.). The confluence of such investments creates strong mutual interests that Eisenhower seems to have addressed in his speech:

  3. The fame-fortune terrain mapping idea is emulated by the financial score x accountability & transparency score evaluator at Each axis on the graph is composed of several metrics that are listed in detail. It’s a handy way to see if your favorite charity is as pure as it claims as well as if it’s overspending on administration or failing to disclose board meeting minutes, for example. A similar scheme could be devised for the fame-fortune terrain map. There are many science and education related charities and non-profit organizations listed.

  4. Sounds more like PR spin than anything meaningful. If anything, it seems like a weakening of disclosure.

    But I guess some people will find it useful – Willie Soon and Exxon; just a confluence of interests!

    And yes Judith, that disclosure on the article is nothing out of the ordinary in medical research.

  5. They say “Frequently, this primary interest coincides with secondary interests, most commonly financial in nature, at the interface of the investigator’s relationship with a private sponsor, typically a drug or device company or, increasingly, venture capital firms.”

    They have missed the fact that government funding is equally influential, and far larger. This is a common error. Government funding-induced bias is especially forceful in climate science. But I agree that it is not a conflict of interest, for it is deeper than that. It is a positive feedback form of protection of the funding agency’s mission and funded scientist’s paradigm. A multi-billion dollar mutual admiration society.

    • So, a Ponzi to illusion?

    • Reply to David Wojick ==> The authors very clearly include government-funding — they specifically mention NIH grants, for instance. No, they have not downplayed the influence of government grants, employment, committee membership — in fact, they up-play these points.

      The biasing influence of government and NGO money is magnified in Climate and Environmental Science — and in certain areas of health/medicine, which are likewise highly politically polarized.

      Moreover, they go to some length to point out the “fame” element (including tribal approval ratings) as possibly being more important than money in academia.

    • David

      Correct. There are also the policy consequences, including fiscal policy, that include tax breaks and outright government funding of certain industries that, in turn, fund the political campaigns of the politicians. I call that a positive feedback more scary than rising water. At least I can back away from the water.

  6. “Conflict of interest” is supposed to be pejorative, confrontational, and presumptive of inappropriate behavior. It sets a standard for testing what is appropriate behavior. Clarify it, sure, but don’t water it down or you get even more inappropriate behavior.

    • Reply to Gary ==> As it stands now, it is the vicious blunt weapon of choice for propaganda merchants and SIF advocacy groups to attack reputable researchers who receive even the tiniest bit of research money from some conspiracy-theorist’s-delusional “enemies list” (but not any funds from clearly biased “friends”).

      • Every tool can be misused. And sometimes do more damage by misuse than the good that proper use provides. Blame the operator, not the tool.

      • It’s a lot more likely that a hammer will be misused by somebody whose toolbox lacks a screwdriver and a crescent wrench.

      • Reply to Gary ==> The effort is to e-x-p-a-n-d the definition to include other biasing factors, not dilute. The expanded view offers much more insight into potential bias than simple monetary considerations.

      • There is an easy way to handle this for most cases and that is replication of the work. If a scientific work turns out to be not replicable, there should be a very public mark against the scientist involved.

        See, we don’t worry where the money came from, we keep score on who does good work and who doesn’t.

      • Government has a monopoly on violence and the ability to tax and regulate and confiscate private property. No business interest can do that.

      • I agree with Gary. And “perceived conflict of interest” is not pejorative.

      • The bottom line on the current requirements is simply one of disclosure. Calling it confluence or conflict changes nothing.

        The BMJ call it Competing Interests – and most already indicate that it’s not just relevant financial considerations that are expected to be disclosed.

    • Conflict or confluence of interest is irrelevant. There is no logical argument in claiming something is “wrong” because a conflict of interest exists, and nothing is “right” simply because no conflict of interest exists.

      The entire “debate” on this subject is foolish. If the only argument made is One regarding a conflict of interest, then no argument has been made.

  7. By the same token, a scientist who is offered research funding from an industrial source is viewed as having a confluence of interest with that source.

    There appears to be an opinion that companies, especially tobacco and oil companies, always want someone to do research that always comes out in their favor.

    I believe that many companies want research that tells them what is really correct.

    CO2 and second hand smoke have both been demonized way beyond honest science. Honest science finds increased CO2 only as good. Honest science finds second hand smoke bad, but not nearly as bad as the dishonest demonizing.

    I mention second hand smoke and CO2 in the same posting because my alarmist liberal friends always do this.

    • PCT,
      Who was it that originally provided funding for Mr. Mosher’s BEST?
      Confluence, conflict, or just funding?

  8. Does the global warming, Confluence of Interest = the global warming, Consensus?

  9. The Food & Drug Administration (FDA) sends to me two or three emails a day regarding “compliance” with their rules regarding disclosure of “conflicts of interest” in its many forms including data integrity. Whole courses are developed just to address FDA rules, their nuances and their applicability to medical research and confidentiality.

    This mornings second FDA email:

    Required at all medical conferences are disclosure rules regarding “conflicts of interest” and/or “outside sources of funding for the conference”, usually both are revealed. Yet, when the transplant surgeon is invited to speak from a particular institution, after a brief disclosure of the surgeons training and current institutional appointments, the conference lapses into a discussion of the good news success stories from the surgeon’s hands and institution. There may be even a comparison of this surgeon’s statistics with some sort of national standard, or may be with the other institution down the road a bit.

    And yet, although the conference may appear to be a blatant advertisement for one surgeon or institution over another, where is a provider to turn for current information of this sort to send a patient who may require such services. Such current statistics never makes it to established literature sources, or if it does, usually in large reviews written years later; hardly timely for a patient who needs a transplant. Does a provider believe a news paper story about bad outcomes at one institution or another? I can assure you, journalists are terrible at getting facts, particularly relevant facts correct, let alone in assembling those facts into a coherent story. Everything is expose’. Too many factors go into outcomes which, when viewed after considerable and painfully obtained experience, many times reveals patient selection as one of the initial and very important deciding factor in a good/bad outcome.

    In terms of disclosure, who is willing to say to a desperate patient and family: “…at the current state of the art for your case in particular, you are not eligible for this drug/procedure/benefit?” rebutted by family: “Who are you trying to play God?”

  10. To be fair, the term conflict of interest is often preceded by “potential” or “perceived”, which sort of tempers the pejorative nature and highlights the legitimate concerns society may have about relationships. In the pharma business some of the limits go to absurd lengths. Then again, here in Rhode Island, in the political arena, COI is often taken for “If it’s in my interest, I don’t see a conflict.” ;-)

  11. It sounds to me like an opportunity for an internet entrepreneur: some kind of firewall between donor and recipient. Like a dating site. You would pitch your grant proposal under a pseudonym and donors, also anonymous, would surf the site looking for projects they’d like to back.

    • Most basic research is funded by the federal government, via requests for proposals. This is where the bias begins, because the government decides what the questions are. Very little research is based on unsolicited proposals. Your dating service might work for industrial research.

  12. Thank you, Dr. Curry, for pursuing the subject of ethics which is so important to scientific credibility. Unfortunately, the problem in science just reflects the global ethics problem we have in politics and our daily lives.

    Full disclosure — I’m a fat, old, retired EE (1959) who spent 30 years in and around nuclear power plants. I’m also a conservative and a climate skeptic with a point of view very similar to one Dr. J. Curry.

    Whether a research PhD, or a beggar, we all compete for resources. And as bank robber Willy Sutton said, he robbed banks because that’s where the money is. Research is expensive, and researchers go where the money is — government, industry, special interest groups, or the rich.

    I used to think that scientists were faithful to the scientific method and unbiased. No longer. Even the government used to be relatively trustworthy and unbiased. However, the government now wants to use science to further all sorts of political goals, and “invests” large amounts of money in research that furthers those goals.

    As you have pointed out, research financed by government and non-profit environmental organizations (Is there a difference?) is portrayed as unbiased and “good,” and all industry sponsorship as “bad,” biased, etc., etc.

    I think the politically driven government funding of research — at least in the climate area — has been much worse for scientific ethics than industry funding. And, unfortunately, too many scientists are OK with bending the ethics rules because they believe the ends justifies the means. Worse yet, they are seriously undermining the scientific method and scientific credibility.

    • Good points. I would like to add to it that It is quite silly to think that public funded research is unbiased and “good”: From Wikipedia:
      “Research funding – is a term generally covering any funding for scientific research …. The term often connotes funding obtained through a competitive process, in which potential research projects are evaluated and only the most promising receive funding.”

      “The process of grant writing and grant proposing is a somewhat delicate process for both the grantor and the grantee: the grantors want to choose the research that best fits their scientific principles, and the individual grantees want to apply for research in which they have the best chances but also in which they can build a body of work towards future scientific endeavors.”

      “A theoretical model has been established whose simulations imply that peer review and over-competitive research funding foster mainstream opinion to monopoly.”

      The idea that a person or group, who makes a living and build their professional careers by such funding will automatically provide high integrity research is simply wrong. The perspective on the issue at hand is governed and influenced by the funding process. There are few incentives to expose own and other´s ideas, hypothesis and theories to the fiercest struggle for survival in attempts to falsify them – even though that is fundamental to the scientific process – fundamental to the accumulation of knowledge. Theories are merited by the severity of the tests they have been exposed to and survived and not at all by inductive reasoning in favor of them.

  13. I disagree that most researchers could make more money in industry.
    I don’t think they would make a similar career in average. In Germany the public sector pays very well. Therefore there is a lot of conflict of interest to get funds for public institutes like the PIK in Potsdam in order to create positions as Director of such and such for “Klimafolgenforschung” in the 23rd century and beyond. Especially of you specialised in climate in academia, because this is not needed in industry.

    • Concur that most scientists would NOT make more money in industry. One should look at the George Mason climate clique and the salaries and funds from NSA and outside interests. How fast Mann rose from a postdoc making $90K to a superstar at an astronomical salary plus outside interests. The “big green machine” is corrupting academia and government and most industry stays aloof focusing on fracking or productive outcomes. Few work on esoteric models unless validated against reality observations such as petroleum engineering. I guess the big green blob replaced the bog green machine from Vietnam

  14. The academic view seems to be that commercial interests are a COI but being on the board of or getting $ from Greenpeace is not. That being asked to advise a politician is not a COI even though the thrill of it can make one lose one’s objectivity. That spinning one’s research to get a grant is not a COI. The bias against $ and blindness to types of bias is IMO widespread.
    Judith: the reaction to your business is typical — academic life is supposed to be like a cloister (even though one can fly high with big NSF grants!) and business dirties the hands.

    • It’s just a continuation of the response to the threat to hereditary and religious power that the rise of the mercantile class represents; the arrogance is still there hundreds of years later. Somehow providing amazing goods and services to billions of people is seen as demeaning: an interesting philosophy/worldview.

  15. Curious George

    Once we start redefining the meaning of words, there is no reason to stop. Do you remember, what these words used to mean?
    – free speech
    – marriage
    – measurement
    And now an old-school, pejorative conflict of interests. Who needs to demean a person with a confluence of interests?

  16. Coleridge, who wrote op-eds for about a decade around 1800, said that a conflict of interest is the pulley on which good character is hoist into public view.

    There were fewer memes back then, or good character counted for more.

  17. David L. Hagen

    Re: “Just as universities foster relationships of their faculty with industry, . . .protect and ensure the independence of their faculty to disseminate the full spectrum of their discoveries,”
    Industries that need to swim or sink need patents to protect themselves from the sharks. Consequently you can’t publish till you patent else you lose it. (From hard experience of 27 US patents filed, 17 issued and 192 to go)

  18. Seems to me that there are some lessons here for the powers that be at the IPCC to be learning!

    Notwithstanding the fact that far too many past performances (cf their “responses” to the circa Aug. 2010 recommendations of the InterAcademy Council – not to mention their subsequent practices and leadership’s behaviours) strongly suggest that they will do so with eyes wide shut, as usual!

  19. Willis Eschenbach

    Judith, this is a most interesting read. However, I didn’t understand the objection to the term “conflict of interest”, nor how replacing it with “confluence of interest” assists things.

    A classic conflict of interest might come from a county supervisor ruling about rezoning a property where he is part owner. It’s call a “conflict” because while he should do one thing if he is serving the public interest, say zone it a a public recreational area, he may do the opposite thing if he is serving his own interest, say zone it as a commercial area so he can make money off the land. That’s a conflict.

    The key point is that the two interests, the public interest and his private interest, are not the same—indeed, they are in CONFLICT, because he can’t do both. When he is acting in one interest, he is not acting in the other interest.

    It came up in a corporation where I was a board member. The corporation had a chance to lease a vessel, and one of the other board members had an interest in the vessel. So he recused himself, because there was a CONFLICT between his private business interests and his fiduciary duties to the corporation as a board member.

    As a result, I don’t understand the idea that it is a “confluence of interest” question. There’s no problem when there is a confluence of interests. It is only when those interests conflict with each other that we need to take action to protect the enterprise.

    Sometimes, that situation may be adequately addressed by simply publicly revealing the potential conflict. Other times, it may require that someone else who does NOT have a conflict performs the action in question.

    But I don’t see it requiring finding some new and more politically correct term for the situation, particularly an inaccurate term like “confluence of interest”.

    Is the term “pejorative” as the author says? Sure … but then if you know you have an undisclosed conflict of interest and you act anyhow, you deserve to get pejoricated. It should be a negative term, it’s a negative thing. What’s next, renaming “embezzling” to be the “non-public shift of the physical location of company assets” so it won’t be pejorative?

    Other than that, however, the other issues raised about fame, honor, and awards are most interesting.

    All the best, and thanks as always for your endlessly fascinating blog,


    • Hi Willis, the types of ‘conflicts’ are university professors accepting a speaking fee, or a consulting fee for applying their expertise. This is called a ‘conflict’. Professors are expected to obtain funding for their research; the university does not regard it as a conflict when a company sends money to the university to support a professor’s research (this is Willie Soon’s situation). Another type of ‘conflict’ is if a faculty member owns company, then they can’t pay students to work for the company (a huge missed opportunity, not to mention income for students). It is pretty hard to figure out what the actual ‘conflict’ is for many of these.

      A big conflict is if a faculty member’s private company competes with the university for govt grants using the faculty member’s expertise – this is the shukla case.

      • Willis Eschenbach

        Thanks for your quick reply, Dr. C. Seems like the problem is that some things are being called “conflicts” that aren’t, or may not be. I mean, a professor taking a $500 honorarium for speaking to group X is not a conflict on my planet, no matter who group X is. If the oppoing group Y offered the same opportunity, s/he might gladly speak to them as well and pocket the $500 … me, I’m happy to speak in front of any group.

        Bill Clinton getting a half-million dollar speaking fee plus a donation to the Clinton Foundation from someone doing business with the State Department, on the other hand …

        PNAS recently tried to bust Willie Soon regarding a comment to a paper. The comment was authored by Willie, David Legates, and myself. The paper was on arctic albedo variations, and the claim was that there was a conflict of interest because Willie had taken funds some years ago from an energy company based in New York to do some research for them … say what??? Where is the conflict? It was nothing but an underhanded attempt to damage Willie’s reputation.

        Since PNAS was claiming that any association with an organization was a conflict that needed to be declared, even if the organization did not sponsor the work, or indeed have even the most distant relationship to the work in question, David wrote back to them as follows:

        I notice that an article was recently published by M.Mann and P.Gleick in Volume 112, No. 13, 3858-3859, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1503667112 (March 31, 2015) in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. They both admit “The authors declare no conflict of interest.”

        Dr. Mann is a member of the Advisory Board of the Climate Change Communication Network (since 2010), Climate Communication (since 2011), OurEarth (since 2008), and 1Sky (since 2008). Dr. Gleick is an advisor to the Blue Planet Network. These are advocacy groups in support of climate change action and legislation.

        In addition to these publications, Dr. Mann has published the following articles in PNAS since his participation with these advocacy groups without a disclosure of a conflict of interest:

        Steinman et al. (2012): PNAS 109(29):11619-11623.
        Kemp et al. (2011): PNAS 108(40):E783.
        Kemp et al. (2011): PNAS 108(27):11017-11022.
        Mann (2009): PNAS 106(11):4065-4066.
        Mann et al. (2009): PNAS 106(6):E11.
        Mann et al. (2008): PNAS 105(36):13252-13257.

        In light of the PNAS decision on Dr. Soon’s situation, am I correct in assuming that the above-cited articles will also be corrected and a similar adjustment to their Conflict of Interest statement will be included? Moreover, since Mr. Salsbury also has indicated that “we apply the same policy to every submission,” can I expect that all articles published in PNAS by other researchers will be evaluated and corrected, if appropriate? If not, why?

        Since then, the good folks at PNAS have gone strangely silent …

        So there is another aspect to this, the punitive use of the post-hoc claim that there was an undeclared conflict of interest.

        Most fascinating and complex subject, both what is and isn’t a conflict, and what we can/should to to avoid them …

        My best to you,


      • “University professors accepting a speaking fee, or a consulting fee for applying their expertise” merely implies acceptance of compensation for professional services rendered, with no prejudicial conclusion being drawn. This is a far cry from a genuine “conflict of interest,” wherein there is a vested interest on the part of the professor that may prejudice the conclusion.

      • I think there is some confusion here over conflict.

        The existence of coi doesn’t automatically mean that the conflicting activity can’t be undertaken, simply that it is disclosed so others can consider it’s relevance.

        Wille Soon’s problem wasn’t a coi, it was the failure to disclose an interest that obviously should have been.

      • Willis Eschenbach

        Michael | September 30, 2015 at 7:03 pm |

        I think there is some confusion here over conflict.

        The existence of coi doesn’t automatically mean that the conflicting activity can’t be undertaken, simply that it is disclosed so others can consider it’s relevance.

        Wille Soon’s problem wasn’t a coi, it was the failure to disclose an interest that obviously should have been.

        I fail to see the conflict between some work done for someone years ago in a totally different field on the one hand, and an analysis of arctic albedo on the other hand.

        I’m one of the authors too, and I’ve worked for all kinds of people over the years. But none of them funded my research into arctic albedo. And none of them have anything to do with arctic albedo. I’ve worked for very liberal organizations, and very conservative organizations. So where is the conflict?

        Finally, Willie Soon’s problem was a politically motivated witch-hunt started by a crusading “green” journalist. He didn’t “fail” to disclose anything. There was nothing to disclose.


      • Judith, I’m mostly with you, but: “…if a faculty member owns company, then they can’t pay students to work for the company… It is pretty hard to figure out what the actual ‘conflict’ is for many of these.”

        It does not seem a stretch for me that a professor’s interest in advising and guiding a student for the student’s own educational benefit and personal development could easily come into conflict with getting that student to do work for the professor’s privately owned company. One has different obligations as an employer and as an advocate. The power you have over an employee can come into conflict with the power and responsibility you have as a grader, for instance.

      • that is fair enough, but that conflict can easily be managed. It shouldn’t be prohibited.

      • Hi Dr Curry,

        I agree with Willis on this and share his confusion.

        To me COI is simply a situation where someone may be in a position where a decision or choice can be influenced or seen to be influenced by an existing circumstance or position.

        The COI that is often attempted to be pinned on Willie Soon is that some of his research was funded by an oil company. The conflict it is seen to be is that fossil fuel industries have an interest in disproving the existence of AGW, since fossil fuels are suppose to be a major factor and to be curbed.

        His situation was unfair because he didn’t receive the funding directly, nor have a choice in where it came from, nor was he entitled to disclose the funding anyway. He was clearly not in conflict.

        As Willis pointed out, a professor giving a talk about an area in which they are an expert in can in no way be a conflict of interest, and the question should be asked “where is the conflict in that?”

        However if a professor received a research grant to ascertain the impact of international shipping into a harbour on a local ecosystem, when he held substantial shares or financial interests in a shipping line using that harbour, then he would have a clear conflict of interest. It could easily be argued that his results would be biased in favouring low impacts, because he has in interest in shipping continuing unmolested. But provided that COI was disclosed e results of the research could be taken into account.

        To me, COI is a very clear situation and I don’t see there needs to be a view of it being pejorative or renamed. It actually sounds like some people don’t know what a COI is and are calling it that for convenience. But seriously, we wouldn’t get very far if we called a dog a “horse” because they both have four legs. The trick is to be more disciplined with nomenclature.

  20. My question: where or to whom is there confluence with the FDA on this missive?

    The FDA has become more nuanced over the years and it appears to me that what the FDA really means by “conflict of interest”: how you come into conflict with the FDA by not following FDA rules as opposed to what or how your circumstances/finances may interfere with your investigations/clinical trials/treatment regimens. Where is the confluence in this ever changing landscape of minutia rules and regulations?

    Bureaucracy for bureaucracy sake; self-importance; providing employment to an ever growing tentacled controlling monster.

  21. “Most academic researchers could make much more money in the private sector.”
    Indeed: “If you are so clever, then why aren’t you rich?” Scientists are bad salespersons. Shukla is not a scientist.

  22. This is an endlessly convoluted topic. Mostly in the eye of the beholder. Willis’ specific example is a good illustration.
    More sunlight is always better. But ultimately ethics are personal, and it is person’s ‘body of work’ from which bias potential needs to be judged. Shukla is a clear case of bias. Soon (once the facts are known) is a clear case of no bias. Both illustrate the upside down world warmunists inhabit. CoI is just another tool in the Alinsky toolbox for them.

  23. Most researchers that I know are driven much more by fame than by personal ‘fortune’ (Shukla seems to be an exception.)

    Mann seems to have done alright too, AFAIK.

  24. If Judith thinks fame is a potentially useful metric in terms of conflicts, I’d like to see how she might apply it to herself.

    After all, scientists who are also into advocacy might be a group even more into the ‘fame’ thing than others. An advocate without a profile isn’t much of an advocate.

    There might be a temptation to hype up claims, possibly make wild and broad accusations that draw attention to themselves, and , inadvertently of course, raise their public profile, all the better to advocate.


  25. Back to basics: Conflict: Friction or opposition resulting from actual or perceived differences or incompatibilities.

    Confluence: a situation in which two things come together or happen at the same time

    A Rose by any other name is two different things.

  26. “Faculty should be repeatedly educated in their ethical responsibilities, not just to their patients, but also to their students, their colleagues, and their institutions to minimize bias and to serve the primary interest of biomedical research.”

    Do climate science faculty members have an ethical responsibility to explain to prospective graduate students the adversarial situation engulfing the profession?

  27. Geoff Sherrington


    You should be careful of this assumption – “Most academic researchers could make much more money in the private sector.”
    That is not a given. The methods of operation can be quite different in each of the two. It is not certain, until it is done and evaluated, whether people transplant with success each time.

    For example, in the private sector, I once advertised widely for a research position to be filled. An applicant from academia wrote “I am not sure I am suitable. I have only worked at University. Can you please tell me what I should do.” Well, the letter came with no return address and no University to contact. It was hard, because the letter was also devoid of the applicant’s name. Another point – from the age of 30 to the end of my career my remuneration was consistently more than double that of professors at the time.

  28. I disagree with the assertion that “the term conflict of interest is pejorative. It is confrontational and presumptive of inappropriate behavior.” “Pejorative” is a strong term, expressing contempt or disapproval. To me, the term recognises that human beings, with few exceptions, are driven first by their perceived own interests and those of people close to them or on whom they depend, and that while they might act altruistically, there is often a tension between pursuing the public or community good and fostering one’s own interests. That is how the world works, and in policy areas it is often evident, and often those placed in a position of trust or authority abuse that position to foster their perceived self-interest [footnote]. The term recognises reality, it is neither confrontational nor presumptive, but acknowledges that account might need to be taken of such conflicts. My experience is that human nature operates in medical fields as it does elsewhere. To me, the term “confluence of interest” obscures this reality, and would tend to leave more room for abuse than continued use of the term which clearly recognises it.

    That does not mean, of course, that – as Judith appears to have experienced at GA Tech – we approach with extreme suspicion anyone involved in an activity where there might be a conflict of interest: we just have to be aware of it, and apply commonsense in our assessments – or “due diligence,” the level of diligence needed might not be high. It’s on a case-by-case basis, and one’s knowledge of the parties involved will affect one’s judgement on how much diligence might be required.

    [Footnote: I think that we best serve ourselves by being unselfish and serving others, without thought of self. When this approach is followed with wisdom and understanding, then conflicts of interest will seldom arise.]

  29. My first reaction to the proposed “terrain-mapping” approach is that it would be unworkable. How much time and effort would be needed? Might it foster conflict rather than “confluence”? I can often recognize potentially problematic conflicts of interest because I’ve been dealing with people all my life, although I’ve generally been naïve and trusting and assumed, too often wrongly, that others would have the same high standards that are natural to me. [Not big-noting myself, just telling it as it is.] Those less trusting than me would probably be more attuned to COI.

  30. Fourth and fifth points, yes, but “repeatedly educating” people does not often bring about significant change. We what we are; change comes through self-awareness, recognition of our failings and the volition and tools to address them. We almost always resist the efforts of “those who know better” to “improve” us. Political correctness, anyone?

  31. “Confluence of interest represents a complex ecosystem that requires … while being sufficiently flexible at the individual level not to intrude on the process of innovation.” Too long away from the real world, perhaps? Whatever the system, the quality of the individuals involved will always be critical. When society holds in high regard honesty, integrity and selflessness, then many problems would evaporate. But such a change can come about only by the efforts of each individual, it can not be imposed or orchestrated by any group, however well-intentioned. Indeed, good intentions without wisdom and understanding can be very harmful. One might consider alleged CAGW as such an example (although I would not regard the intentions of some promoting it as good).

  32. Berényi Péter

    The term conflict of interest is pejorative. It is confrontational and presumptive of inappropriate behavior.

    Intentionally so. A person suffering from conflict of interest is expected to find a way to step out of the situation under any circumstances. If it were not confrontational and presumptive of inappropriate behavior, how this kind of move is supposed to be enforced?

  33. It seems to be axiomatic with some people that the goal of sponsored research is to back up the views of the sponsor, whether it be the government, the Koch brothers, Shell Oil, or whatever.

    Stanford launched its Global Climate & Energy Project in December 2002 with funding on a scale of hundreds of millions of dollars, initially from ExxonMobil, GE, Schlumberger, and Toyota and later joined by Du Pont and Bank of America. One might assume (as did Greenpeace for example) that such sponsorship would produce science in support of fossil fuels and in opposition to the IPCC’s account.

    GCEP’s objectives can be seen here.

    We believe that no single technology is likely to meet the energy challenges of the future on its own. It is essential that GCEP explore a range of technologies across a spectrum of globally significant energy resources and uses.

    As a result, our primary objective is to build a diverse portfolio of research on technologies that will reduce greenhouse gas emissions, if successful in the marketplace.

    Among GCEP’s specific goals:

    1. Identify promising research opportunities for low-emissions, high-efficiency energy technologies.

    2. Identify barriers to the large-scale application of these new technologies.

    3. Conduct fundamental research into technologies that will help to overcome these barriers and provide the basis for large-scale applications.

    4. Share research results with a wide audience, including the science and engineering community, media, business, governments, and potential end-users.

    Since then GCEP has been joined at Stanford by two other environment-oriented organizations, the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment in 2004 and the Stanford Precourt Institute for Energy in 2009. Stanford also has a Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering chaired by Stephen Monismith who applies fluid dynamics to environmental issues in rivers, lakes, estuaries and oceans, as well as Mark Jacobson as director of the Atmosphere/Energy Program who works on atmospheric pollution and alternative energies and teaches a course on numerical weather prediction.

    I’ve been unable to discern any difference between these organizations in their overall position on global environmental change, the considerable diversity in their respective sources of funding notwithstanding. MIT has its Richard Lindzen, for whom Stanford has no counterpart.

    Based on this admittedly small sample of academia worldwide, I’d have to say that It is naive to judge a research project by its source of funding.

  34. Pingback: Weekly Climate and Energy News Roundup #199 | Watts Up With That?

  35. Disclosure of such information on institutional websites and its provision in consent forms to participants in trials would help the public to visualize the complexity of such relationships and aid individuals and institutions to promote confluence of primary and secondary interests with the objective of minimizing bias. Irrespective of such efforts, disclosure is necessary but insufficient; it can serve to mitigate, but not to avoid bias.

  36. I think funding is overrated. Look at what Anthony’s team (Dr. Nielsen-Gammon, Dr. Christy, Anthony and me), plus our volunteer surveyors have managed without pulling in a thin dime. Nothing greases the skids better than elbow grease.

    What those who do science want most is to be right.

    Consider climategate. None of those guys lost any swag over the whole flap. Yet they paid a staggering and bitter price for their sins, and in the coin with which they were least willing to part. (Dr. Jones, for one, is on record as saying he was feeling downright suicidal.)

    I wouldn’t trade places with any of them for all the gold in Acapulco or all the grants in Vicksburg.