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.

Conclusion


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.