Conflicts of Interests in Academic Research

May, 2014

Lincoln -- Writing in The New Yorker, Rachael Aviv tells an unsettling story of the lengths to which Syngenta, the huge agribusiness company, has gone to try to discredit critics of its product atrazine. Syngenta plots and schemes to undermine researchers who believe atrazine is dangerous, all the while excusing such behavior as normal business practice.

The part of the article that caught my attention was not the back and forth disagreement among academic researchers as to the safety of atrazine, but the citation of a conflict of interest study that showed the relationship between who pays for a study and its outcome. When Syngenta pays, most academic researchers somehow find that atrazine is safe.

While this controvery is playing out, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln has hired a new dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at a salary well above that of the chancellor, raising many eyebrows as to why such a salary is necessary. The pay is even being substantially augmented by private dollars through the NU Foundation.

To me, the new dean will be worth every penny if he recognizes conflicts of interest and stands tall for academic integrity. The College of Arts and Sciences is not only the academic core of the university, it must also be its conscience, extending across other colleges and departments. On the other hand, if the new dean is another of an increasingly common breed, the academic administrator who equates grant revenue totals with accomplishment of mission and winks at conflicts of interest in research, he won't be worth a salary at any level and should not have been hired.

Nebraska taxpayers also deserve to know if the private money that is augumenting the dean's compensation may pose a conflict of interest itself.

Many of us who favor more taxpayer support for higher education, to recover from the cuts of the last decade, are fearful of what kinds of institutions we will now be supporting. Forced to seek outside funding over the years, how conflicted and corrupted have they become?