Credibility vs. Expertise

I recently turned down a research project from a private transportation company.

They approached us with an opportunity to do a moderately interesting analysis (nothing earth shattering, but would make a decent MS Thesis). We proposed in response, negotiated, and more or less agreed to the terms of work. As we were entering contracting stage, they wanted approval over what we could publish from the research (not simply being informed of what we were going to publish, and given the opportunity to provide comments, which is fine and simple courtesy, not simple delay, but approval, even after the contract closed). While this is generally unenforceable, we cannot agree to these kinds of terms and maintain our integrity.

I understand why they want this. We might say something that is not in the company’s interest. If what we say agrees with what they want said, they would approve, if not, they would squash it. This creates a positive results bias in a way.

I belong to a research university not a consultancy. The reason we engage in research is to discover truth. We then make our findings public to add to the store of human knowledge. Further, students need to be able to publish their MS Thesis, both to prove they wrote them, and for their own careers, leave aside adding to human knowledge. I am not sure how people in defense and medicine do research, but transportation is traditionally public sector.

We are, I think, cheaper than consultants in general, in part because we have this subsidized student labor, who forego salary in exchange for education, part of which is a research experience, they payoff of which is downstream publication if it is good enough. Students should not be exploited (or let themselves be exploited) this way, where the outcome of their research depends on whether the funder likes the results.

My conclusion is that the private firm was in fact trying to buy our credibility (if the “objective experts” at the University of Minnesota say something good, publicize, otherwise bury) rather than our expertise. While I recognize these are jointly produced — our expertise, as demonstrated by publication in peer reviewed journals produces credibility; credibility expands opportunities to obtain expertise — it would not take too many of these contracts before that credibility would be destroyed.

Now, I understand other organizations who fund us in a way buy our credibility too. And if they like what we say, they issue a press release, and if they don’t they just ignore it, and leave us to the many readers of Transportation Research part Z. It gets published, it just doesn’t get as widely distributed. That’s fine. No one promised us free marketing for the research.

And I also understand that we are not a blank slate, we are more likely to attract some funders than others because of what we are expected to say based on past experience. There is self-selection all around. That too is the nature of the world. I can still publish, they can still choose to publicize or not. But I am not pre-committing to an outcome, and am not changing my analysis based on the desire to be funded.

The consequence of turning down this contract is that perhaps one less student got funded to do an MS Thesis in Civil Engineering at the University of Minnesota, and instead went to the next highest ranked university in the field (displacing the weakest student who was admitted there). Maybe this firm found another university to do their bidding. Maybe the displaced student went there. I don’t know.