Enron is once more in news. As more and more skeletons are shaken out of its cupboards, a merry dance has begun. But the big issue here is the conflict of interests of bigwig Arthur Anderson. The firm was on one hand the consulting agency and on the other the power giant's auditor. Naturally, accountability is the first to go out of the window. But then for us it sounds all so familiar. In a country where Environment Impact Assessments (eias) are routinely contracted out to consultancy agencies on the condition that they will obtain the clearance from the regulatory agency, such tie-ups are nothing to send eyebrows rising.
As in the case of Enron, so is it in the field of scientific research. The same agencies are to be found in research arena and in the technical or commercial promotion of a product. For instance, the spurt of pharmaceutical sector saw a concurrent rise in the number of corporate-funded research. Coincidence? And what about reliability? Just how does one separate the public good from the private interests in these apparently public interest studies? It's even worse when scientists from reputed institutions are caught up in this mess.
The big question is thus: what will be the management of science. Indian scientists acknowledge this unholy nexus (see Manipulating Research on page 49). They are concerned but what is the way out? It is well known that corporate research budgets are rising much faster than government and charitable foundations, making these institutions more dependent on industry sponsorship. At the same time, academics are facing increasing competition from the fast growing consultancy research sector, which is less constrained by traditions of independence and objectivity.
But with more and more at stake when scientific decisions are used for public policy we need to take action fast. We need well-framed guidelines to promote transparency in funding of research.