Friday, August 31, 2018

Transparency's Edge

I'm thinking about next Monday.  Labor Day.  While it is a holiday for most, I'll be on a conference call at 7 AM-- one steeped in mystery. 

While transparency is critical to trust in public science, are there times when it is not warranted?  I never even thought about this until today after going under the bus by the folks at Biofortified for taking on a confidential,vacation-time paid assignment with a law firm. They felt that they should know everything I do on my off time in a private arbitration. 

We (scientists and companies) sometimes work under Non-Disclosure Agreements (NDAs). Me, not so much. But this is very common in all research institutions. 

My lab has expertise in narrow-bandwidth lighting solutions for plant growth environments. Should have to disclose all of our findings in development in the name of transparency?  

When a company wants to discuss research or potential funding, it is customary for both parties to sign an NDA.  It means that nothing that is discussed in that meeting can be discussed outside of that meeting.  It allows assurances for free flow of ideas and honest discussion of research avenues. 

This Labor Day morning I have a phone conversation with a company that works in LED lighting for greenhouses and controlled environments.  It is a highly competitive space with big profits riding on new ideas and discoveries that are few and far between. 

They'd like me to keep their interests confidential. 

My lab has a lot of edgy ideas.  While I want to find someone to invest in further research, I don't want them to steal my ideas and them on their own, or partner with institutions that have better facilities.  

I'd like them to keep my interests confidential. 

So we establish an NDA. 

But is this Transparency?

The recent actions by Karl Haro Von Mogel and Anastasia Bodnar claim that nothing can be secret, that academic scientists must divulge all information about their work and who they are working with. 

Unfortunately, many companies in this competitive space do not want to share their research affiliations and want to keep the nature of the work they are doing private. 

We still can publish the work and acknowledge them after the fact.  But in establishing the relationship the NDA is an important tool.  But does that fly in the face of transparency? 

Trade Secrets

Sometimes we have to enter into contacts that indicate that we'll keep information confidential.  It is to protect the interests of all parties involved.  The docs can be obtained by Freedom of Information Act requests and will show the names of the parties, but not the content of proposals and other proprietary details (they'll be redacted).  

Can you imagine how the folks at Biofortified will run that up the transparency flagpole as a major breach of ethics, and undisclosed associations? 

This Hurts Everyone

The demands of transparency hawks will only destroy university scientists' ability to explore collaborative agreements and research relationships. Small companies especially are fighting for a small piece of the market, and turning over their secrets because a couple of internet sleuths want to know everything Folta does and who he associates with, means nobody will work with me, no matter how innovative we are.  When Karl and Anastasia are going to hunt down and spread confidential documents on the internet, what company would work with us?  They won't work with us unless we can start off with an agreement for confidentiality.


Transparency is important, but there are instances when information must be withheld from public scrutiny, and protected by NDA.  However, this need then provides a fertile ground for critics to levy the complaint that a researcher has 'secret ties' and 'undisclosed relationships'.  

Can we be transparent and still respect confidentiality?  Not in the eyes of the transparency warriors. 

It is time for critics to analyze our work and actions, and stop niggling in our thin bits of confidential business.  We just want to do research.  Especially those of you that don't have labs, have payrolls, and don't write grants-- please let us do our work. 


Wzrd1 said...

I've worked and operated in a field where NDA's have a darker, deeper side - prison or execution. Violate that NDA, you've revealed highly damaging secrets of a government.
An example, from my early career, "A nuclear reaction should ideally reach at least 50 shakes of reaction time, but alas, only reaches a maximum time of 18 shakes before thermal disassembly of _____________ occurs. This can be increased to 20 - 25 shakes via ___________ or increased fully to 50 shakes via the use of _____________."
The redacted are words or full sentences or even paragraphs. None of which is to be discussed, even under a court order (actually, any jurist attempting to compel it in open court would be immediately arrested and impeached under US code).
So, some would say that full disclosure is in order, in spite of the obvious necessity of protecting such information being disclosed to an entire planet on how to successfully build a gainful feedback system in a fifth generation thermonuclear device.
Obviously not!
So, the NDA has teeth from hell. As the Rosenbergs. Oh wait, they were executed for a modest part on an espionage campaign.

Since, I've moved onward from such non-constructive things to things more creatively constructive, albeit, using methods many do not approve of and have since retired.
Suffice it to say, I am retired military, know how to HALO jump, HIHO jump, had compliments on my swimming from a US Navy SEAL (who tried to recruit me), joked on how to start a P3 Orion's engines (in specific order and generating yet another US Navy recruitment effort (sorry, but I like being on land, thank you. People shoot at you with shit that doesn't miss often in the air and the same is true on the sea. Bullets are stupid and follow predictable trajectories).
I retired when it started to hurt too much to put all of that bullcrap on, bullcrap that kept me alive. 47 pounds of body armor, helmet 7 - 11 pounds, 50 pounds of mission specific equipment, 500 rounds of ammunition (most being primary weapon, around 1/5 being secondary defense weapon), knives, radio (another mass that varied over the decades, but frequently being around 20 pounds, due to encryption devices built in), personal equipment.
Yeah, left footprints in granite.
For my trouble, bilateral cataracts, due to trauma. Fractured ribs, due to fragment induced to armor plate trauma (the blasted things would've likely went through my thorax otherwise). Hearing loss that is significance (at work, we have a noise masking system, which renders conversations with me, erm, problematic. I hear the noise better than I hear the voice and worse, the telephone is always ringing in six to eight tones). And my knees and back are shot to hell and gone, rather worn out.
Lived in lousy neighborhoods, due to budget, being enlisted and all.
Made it even through homelessness, due to a sudden, unannounced federal contract cancellation, which happened when the incumbent idiot in chief took office. While deathly ill at that.
I'm good at surviving. Cockroaches take notes from me.

My primary weapon has always been the same, my mind. Use that properly, one survives and thrives.
For, violence is the first refuge of the incompetent. The second refuge is passive violence via revelation of things that could've been utilized en toto as a specifically packaged weapon.

Currently, I'm gathering information. And not on the good professor.
Just those I consider actual dangers to our society and nation.

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