Transparency and Credibility

Tonight, I was a little surprised to read the following tweets from Marc Lee, Senior Economist with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA), and Co-Director of the Climate Justice Project:

I’m appalled by your acceptance of Enbridge professorship. You’ve lost credibility.

and

If I recall correctly you also own Enbridge stock. So a double conflict on interest on energy issues?

As I wrote here, I expect and welcome the conversation with respect to the impact of accepting this position on my objectivity and ability to comment on energy policy without bias related to the professorship. I do, as Mr. Lee noted, also own Enbridge shares – you can see that and all of my other stock holdings here.

I welcome the conversation, but conversations must be a dialogue not a monologue. I had a brief exchange with Mr. Lee following his initial comments, but feel the need to add a little more here. I am pleased that Mr. Lee is one of a few publicly-engaged economists who has provided on online conflict of interest disclosure of his own. However, this disclosure does not extend to his employer, the CCPA.  When asked whether the CCPA published their financial supporters, Mr. Lee replied that the CCPA publishes financials by donor category, but that donors are not individually listed, to respect their privacy.

Mr Lee claims that  I have lost credibility and am biased both because I own stock in Enbridge (which I publicly disclose) and because I receive a salary premium from the University of Alberta which is financed by a donation from Enbridge (also acknowledged publicly). Are we to believe that Mr. Lee’s own organization, which relies on (unpublished) membership and donor financing is not skewed by conflicts of interests? We must take their word for it because they want to respect their donors’ privacy.  My employment contract and the University’s policy for donation acceptance (PDF) clearly protect the academic freedom which underpins my ability to speak on areas of my expertise without fear of reprisal. So far as I can tell, the CCPA publishes no such documents or makes no such guarantees.

Here are my questions to the CCPA:

1) Will you publish your donor list?

2) Will you state that your employees engaging in public commentary, including but not limited to Mr. Lee, are not bound in any way by the wishes of your donors in terms of that public commentary?

3) Will you state that your research agenda is not influenced by the wishes of your major donors or member organizations?

I have published my sources of financing, my faculty agreement clearly protects my academic freedom, and I can say confidently that my Enbridge Professorship does not influence my research agenda.  I hope you can say the same. If not, what should we conclude about your organization’s credibility and objectivity?

I hope either Mr. Lee or a representative from the CCPA will see fit to respond.

9 responses to “Transparency and Credibility”

  1. Marc Lee

    First of all, I want to be clear that my criticism of Andrew’s acceptance of the Enbridge Professorship in Energy Policy is not personal. Twitter is a less than ideal means to engage, and I apologize if I have caused offense. Andrew and I have not met in person, I have no gripes against him, and we have had some interesting exchanges in the past. I have previously criticized him for having a blog that is about climate change, while holding shares in Enbridge.

    My comments were reflecting a bigger picture, and that is corporate influence on university campuses. Over the years, as universities have expanded their fundraising efforts, we have seen new buildings, classrooms and, endowed chairs being sponsored by corporations. These raise important ethical questions, as pointed out by this feature story in the Financial Post:
    http://business.financialpost.com/2012/03/09/influence-u-the-uneasy-ties-between-canadas-universities-and-wealthy-business-magnates/

    The Canadian Association of University Teachers has also spoken out on this issue:
    http://www.cautbulletin.ca/en_article.asp?articleid=2775
    http://www.cautbulletin.ca/en_article.asp?articleid=973

    Nothing new here. Google “corporate influence in universities” and you will get many hits that speak to this issue better than I can.

    To clarify, I am not suggesting that Andrew has done anything academically unethical, but that he exercised poor professional judgement by accepting the Enbridge professorship. Several people have spoken to me, disapprovingly, about his situation, so my statement that Andrew has lost credibility and this has adversely affected his reputation is, I believe, correct.

    My appeal to Andrew is to do the right thing: renounce the Enbridge professorship, divest from Enbridge (and any other fossil fuel stock), and then speak your mind on GHG mitigation policies.

    As for the CCPA, and the BC office for which I work: we welcome individuals and organizations who support our work to donate to the CCPA. We are a registered charity, and abide by the rules and regulations of the Canada Revenue Agency.

    We don’t publish our donor lists (indeed, doing so would violate privacy law). But when a specific report has received financial support, this is noted on the inside cover, and it is our policy to do so. Examples can be seen for our Climate Justice Project publications:
    http://www.policyalternatives.ca/publications/reports/climate-justice-project

    CCPA has a high degree of independence as a research institute because we have a diverse funding base. Our largest single source of income is individual donors, and we also receive funding support from trade unions, credit unions, foundations and government (for example, SSHRC). This is fundamentally different from right-wing think tanks, almost all of whose funds come from corporations, directly or through corporate-controlled foundations.

    The point here is that this is about more than transparency of funding alone. It matters who the funder is, and whether it is appropriate in a public university.

    As for protecting the research integrity and independence of CCPA researchers, we have a research committee that oversees an anonymous peer review process, and we have board-passed policy that clearly protects the independence of our researchers.

    CCPA is a big tent and sometimes we disagree amongst ourselves, including with funders. On rare occasions this has led an individual or organization to suspend their support, although I would argue that on balance the policy research we have done has grown our donor base over time.

  2. Kevin Milligan

    Hi Marc,

    “My appeal to Andrew is to do the right thing: renounce the Enbridge professorship, divest from Enbridge (and any other fossil fuel stock), and then speak your mind on GHG mitigation policies.”

    Why does Andrew need to renounce before speaking his mind? Isn’t there the possibility that he just continues to so what he always does–which is to speak his mind?

    The point here is that this is about more than transparency of funding alone. It matters who the funder is, and whether it is appropriate in a public university.”

    Disagree fundamentally. What matters is whether the money comes with strings attach that limit A’s freedom to speak his mind. Andrew has been transparent about that.

    If the money came from the govt (which by Marc’s assertion is ‘pure’ money) but had big strings attached would that be OK? I say no. What matters is the academic freedom, and transparency allows all to assess whether Andrew has relinquished any freedom.

    I remember as a grad student in Toronto in the 90s listening with wonder to student activists insisting they wanted only public funding–which left all decisions in the hands of Mike Harris!

    Me, I’ve always been open to funding from any source that does not diminish academic freedom.

  3. Kevin Milligan

    I missed an opening quotation mark on Marc’s words here:

    “The point here is that this is about more than transparency of funding alone. It matters who the funder is, and whether it is appropriate in a public university.”

  4. Geoff Salomons

    One other point that hasn’t been raised here is the topic of A’s research, as though it is fundamentally opposed to the interests of Enbridge and therefore Enrbidge is funding a professorship to align such research with their own interest. One would suspect there would be less flack about an Enbridge professor on pipeline engineering or some such thing.

    The call to renounce, divest, and speak your mind on GHG mitigation policies seems to make the assumption that Enbridge’s interests on energy policy (the research area of the professorship) and A’s research are incommensurable. A more congenial take on Enbridge’s position might suggest that they are an energy company concerned with making profit by supplying energy to consumers. Currently they do so with oil primarily, but have also made massive investments in renewables. They likely have concerns about climate change, as do we all, but hope to operate in a policy system that does not treat them (or the oilsands) unfairly in order to remain competitive. If a policy regime was put in place by the government that perhaps made some of Enbridge’s oilsands projects unfeasible, it wouldn’t be the end of the world and would likely increase Enrbidge’s invesment in renewables. In that vein, Andrew’s research on energy policy seems like something that is in line with that view of Enbridge’s interest. That is not to say that they will always ‘jive’ so to speak, but to suggest that they are diametrically opposed and therefore compromises the integrity of an academic goes too far in my humble opinion.

  5. Alastair Fraser

    I’m sure Andrew would not have accepted the Enbridge chair if he felt it would censor him in any way. And kudos to Andrew for his transparency.

    So that aside, is there still potentially a soft-power problem here?

    Would a typical business school allow the endowment of a “Greenpeace Chair in Energy Policy?” Of even the “Pembina Chair” to be less provocative. How would companies and governments react to a professor holding such a chair? If an environmental group like Greenpeace contributed funding to consulting work done by a professor, would anybody now call that work impartial or object to it?

    Are there any double standard issues here to be considered?

    I think all of us are subject to subconsciously modifying our views in response to influence, such as being less critical of a friend’s position than a stranger holding the same view. I would assume all of us are at risk of self censorship of a donor due to a feeling of thanks. Presumably having a professor who will not discourage funding from large donors is at the back of a hiring committee’s mind? A danger of hiring selection bias, there.

    I’m still concerned that special interest groups (be they unions, companies, or environmental groups) funding research chairs and professorships has a subtle, long-term, and negative influence over academic intellectual independence, despite the safeguards in place.

    So, can donations without strings attached still be a problem?

    What are your thoughts, Andrew?

  6. mcdermottinNYC

    As I found out personally, when outside money, academia and climate change are in the mix, there’s bound to be blowback:

    http://metronews.ca/news/canada/296847/donor-deals-should-be-open-carleton-faculty/

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