Science at a price

The Compass - - EDITORIAL - Rus­sell Wanger­sky Rus­sell Wanger­sky is TC Me­dia’s At­lantic Re­gional colum­nist. He can be reached at rus­sell.wanger­sky@tc.tc; his col­umn ap­pears on Tues­days, Thurs­days and Satur­days in TC Me­dia’s daily pa­pers.

The ques­tion is, just what ex­actly is it that you’re buy­ing? Is it pres­tige, or pres­tige tinged with a lit­tle in­for­mal per­sua­sion?

Uni­ver­si­ties have grown to love sell­ing ev­ery­thing from nam­ing rights to re­search chairs to the monikers of en­tire fac­ul­ties.

And for the most part, the sym­bi­otic re­la­tion­ship can be just fine: a suc­cess­ful busi­nessper­son donates a wheel­bar­row full of cash, and a per­ma­nent me­mo­rial (well, per­ma­nent un­til there’s a bet­ter of­fer) en­sues.

That’s why, at Dal­housie Uni­ver­sity in Hal­i­fax, you see things like the Ken­neth C. Rowe Man­age­ment Build­ing, the Schulich School of Law and the Mar­ion McCain Arts and So­cial Sciences Build­ing.

And it’s not just build­ings and fac­ul­ties. There’s the NSERC-Al- tius Industrial Re­search Chair in Min­eral De­posits at Me­mo­rial Uni­ver­sity in St. John’s, along with the Vale Re­search Chair in Process Risk and Safety En­gi­neer­ing, the Chevron Chair in Petroleum En­gi­neer­ing, the Husky En­ergy Chair in Oil and Gas Re­search — and the list goes on.

But it’s un­set­tling when the donor ex­pects a lit­tle more for their do­na­tion than sim­ply a name. That can’t hap­pen? Well, a Uni­ver­sity of Ok­la­homa dean, Larry Gril­lot, says that’s ex­actly what Con­ti­nen­tal Re­sources CEO Harold Hamm came look­ing for in July of 2014.

Email cor­re­spon­dence from the dean, ob­tained by Bloomberg News, says Hamm, whose com­pany is a ma­jor U of O donor, had a prob­lem with the work be­ing done by some sci­en­tists — es­pe­cially work by the Ok­la­homa Ge­o­log­i­cal Sur­vey (which is part of U of O) re­lat­ing to oil and gas ac­tiv­ity and a dra­matic in­crease in the num­ber of earth­quakes in the re­gion.

“Mr. Hamm is very up­set at some of the earth­quake re­port­ing to the point that he would like to see se­lect OGS staff dis­missed,” the email says.

The email went on to say that Hamm wanted to sit on a search com­mit­tee to re­place the out­go­ing OGS chair­man.

In the end, Gril­lot said that he was so con­cerned about af­fect­ing the sci­en­tific work be­ing done that he didn’t even tell the sci­en­tists in­volved about Hamm’s ef­forts — in­ter­est­ingly, even af­ter the emails were re­leased, the com­mu­ni­ca­tions depart­ment at U of O was deny­ing that Hamm did any­thing wrong, say­ing, “Mr. Hamm ab­so­lutely did not ask to be on the search com­mit­tee or to have any­one from Con­ti­nen­tal put onto the com­mit­tee, nor did he ask that any­one from the Ok­la­homa Ge­o­log­i­cal Sur­vey be dis­missed.”

This isn’t to say that gov­ern­ments don’t dic­tate how science will be done when they’re pay­ing for it; you don’t have to look any fur­ther than the Harper gov­ern­ment’s de­ci­sion to gag fed­eral sci­en­tists — grant­ing them per­mis­sion to talk only about the science the gov­ern­ment ap­proves of — to see that.

But when we an­chor science and sci­en­tific chairs to cor­po­rate dona­tions, and when cor- po­ra­tions more and more step in where cost-cut­ting gov­ern­ments are step­ping back, it’s easy to see that there might well be im­plicit — and ex­plicit — pres­sures not to step on donors’ toes, at the very least.

And as is clear in Ok­la­homa, that pres­sure could con­ceiv­ably stretch far fur­ther than the toes.

By all means, if cor­po­ra­tions want their names and dol­lars to back science for science’s sake, so be it.

But uni­ver­si­ties have to be able to draw a clear line about what it is that’s be­ing sold.

I’m not say­ing the he who pays the piper nec­es­sar­ily calls the tune — but it’s some­thing to be aware of.

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