Science at a price
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.