The pursuit of science costs money. Where the funding for research comes from has, time and again, proven to be a source of ethical contention.
Unfortunately, the findings researchers produce are rarely enough to counter the will of wealthy, outside interests. Much less so when that counter productive will comes from very organization meant to support the pursuit of science.
Such was the problem facing Dr. Alan Ducatman, who served as the interim founding dean for West Virginia University’s newly established School of Public Health in 2011-’12.
Around the same time one of his colleagues, Dr. Michael Hendryx, was researching the health impacts of mountaintop removal mining. Because the coal industry funded West Virginia University they attempted to disown Hendryx’s research by announcing there would be no press release for his findings – an action that is otherwise considered commonplace.
“The background of that announcement was tremendous pressure from the coal industry, I’d already been told my career was on the line,” Ducatman said. “And the person who delivered that message was not an employee of WVU, instead it was the head of the hospital system.”
Ducatman said when the WVU press office declined to promote millions of dollars worth of findings, it raised the eyebrows of many other researchers and the media who began painting WVU in a negative way. Ducatman was placed in the precarious position of preserving the integrity of the fledgling department and acting in the best interests of Hendryx.
“I was invited to address the Chamber of Commerce in Charleston and of course the people there wanted to know about the situation,” Ducatman said. “I told them from my perspective it was done under WVU auspices and it was in fact university research.” Ducatman added that his neutral comments about the situation seemed to curtail the negative press and much of the pressure was relieved, there was, however, more fallout to come.
Unfortunately, there was more fallout to come. Ducatman said he believes that universtiy officials who were trying to detach the insititution entirely were still infuriated, and the atmosphere of hostility may have well been part of what led Hendryx to obtain a new position at the School of Public Health at Indiana University.
“I ignored the messages because I didn’t believe they were aligned with the free inquiry that a university is supposed to do,” Ducatman said. “I thought research on health in the coal fields was hardly going over the line.”
The dilemma that Ducatman and Hendryx faced was far from an isolated case. While the pursuit of science is (or rather, should be) an objective mission, the interests of the corporations and even universities that support them are based in business.
Ducatman said when a dilemma like his reaches any level of public attention there are no winners. The university was still portrayed as a villain and the coal industry as the puppet master. But perhaps the greatest, yet largely forgotten casualty, were the findings of Hendryx and the discouragement of future research at WVU.
Ducatman suggests the simplest solution for such conflicts of interest is that due diligence is carried out by the governing bodies who appoint school officials and that universities be much more transparent about the monetary interests that researchers rely on.
Please follow the link below to hear more on this story from Hendryx in an interview posted in February on Freakonomics.com