I normally use this space to expound on an energy-related topic as it impacts the region, but this month I'd like to take a slightly different tack and discuss related issue: the publication of research results.
Recently, energy and academic publishing became inexorably linked through the tortuous and hotly debated world of climate change research.
Much was made of emails that were disclosed a few years back of a small number of scientists who were using their positions on editorial boards to keep certain research results from being published. The tone and content of the emails left open the interpretation that those decisions were based solely on the fact that they didn't like the conclusions of the researchers, not that the research was of poor quality.
While independent inquiries found that they were not guilty of any chargeable offense, I must admit that I winced at the heavy-handed manner in which these individuals seemed to misuse their positions. In addition, like many of my colleagues, I was not terribly surprised that such things occasionally happen. Disappointed, but not surprised.
However, I'd like to think that something good has come from this. Specifically, academic researchers are coming to grips with the fact that we need to earn, and continue to earn, the public trust. In short, just because we have the title "professor" doesn't mean we will automatically be believed.
An important component of this public trust lies in the assertion that our research results represent our very best effort at answering the question at hand and that those results are the same regardless of who funds the research. It is often the case that when research results happen to support the interests of the entity that funded the research, the results are automatically called into question.
The underlying assumption seems to be that the researcher will of course report those results, because that's what they were paid for. I'm happy to say that I've never observed such behavior, and we in our research labs must be constantly vigilant to ensure that we don't shade our results based on subtle or overt pressure from the funders.
For this reason, most universities maintain a policy that ensures funders cannot place restrictions on the publication of research results. For example, if my lab were to receive funding from a private company, the university administration will not allow the funder to veto publication of those results for any reason, particularly if the funders feel the answers aren't consistent with what they hoped to find.
Note that we're not talking about changing the published conclusions, which would be obviously wrong, we won't even allow the selective withholding results.
Here's an example of how such veto power could easily skew public perception of research results. Imagine a drug company funding two studies of an experimental drug. Research team A found that the drug was very effective in combating certain symptoms and no side effects were reported. Research team B, on the other hand, found that the data weren't quite as conclusive about the effectiveness of the drug and, and they report a noticeable number of cases of possibly troubling side effects.
A reasonable conclusion after looking at these two results is that more research is required. Perhaps better-designed studies are called for. If, however, only the results of Team A were published, then the view from the outside world is that the drug is clearly safe and effective.
As my teachers at St. Mark's Elementary School in Cleveland taught me: A lie of omission is still a lie.
For what it's worth, I am happy to report that all three of Idaho's state-supported research universities have recently demonstrated their commitment to this principle. Faced with a choice between accepting conditions that would clearly compromise the integrity of the research process and turning down a significant about of financial support, they graciously declined the offer of support. That must have been a difficult decision, but it was the right one.
John Gardner is a mechanical engineering professor at Boise State and director of the Energy Efficiency Research Institute at CAES.