Jail Time for Conflict of Interest?

David Bruggeman at Prometheus has what I think can only be described as an extreme view of conflict of interest:

An Emory University Researcher has been sanctioned by the school for, among other things, failing to report about $800,000 in speaking fees from GlaxoSmithKline. As Science Magazine’s science policy blog reports, psychiatrist Charles Nemeroff has been banned from accepting industry money at certain speaking engagements, and not to seek any National Insitutes of Health funding for 2 years. You can get the complete details from the university’s report.

I don’t have much patience for research misconduct, and only a little bit more for the appearance of conflicts of interest. If Nemeroff served jail time I’d think it well deserved.

As a commenter makes clear, Emory’s investigation found that the money from GlaxoSmithKline did not taint Nemeroff’s research. In other words, Mr Nemeroff is an honest scientist, whose only sin was to fail to comply with reporting requirements – an accounting violation, in other words (a big one, but still an accounting violation). Bruggeman’s reaction is that this accounting violation creates an appearance of conflict of interest, and that this in itself deserves jail time. Draco would doubtless have approved.

I wonder to what extent it has occurred to Mr Bruggeman that this “Caesar’s wife must be above suspicion” approach actually in itself creates the appearance of misconduct. If scientific authorities and academics condemn any such violation with the same fervor as they condemn actual, genuine research misconduct, then the public can get the impression that science is hopelessly corrupt when in fact no misconduct has occurred at all. That is a chilling effect. Unless these accounting rules say explicitly and loudly that obtaining money in return for your genuine scientific work is a perfectly honorable course, completely compatible with decent conduct, then the rules themselves create the appearance of impropriety, and diminish science. Transparency can have negative consequences – I for one am glad human beings have skin, for instance.

All the more so when one considers that this attitude is increasingly directed to any interaction with the profitable aspect of science. As the pull of the market is separated from the push of government funding by such attitudes, science will split into two unequal halves. And if the government funded half is financed by appropriators who react to their constituents’ impressions that science is corrupt, that funding may well reduce. Attempting to insulate science from the personal and general influence of profitability is a disservice to science itself.