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Archive for July 14th, 2017

On companies funding legal research: beyond the sound and the fury

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Wow! As soon as the Google decision came out, the atmosphere got very nasty (so much so, in fact, that it occasionally bordered on the comical). And just when I thought things were calming down, the so-called Campaign for Accountability released its bomb: a database of research work directly or indirectly, actually or potentially, financed by Google. The effect of this sensational piece was later amplified when the Wall Street Journal and The Times chose to run their own stories on the same topic.

Any attentive reader of these stories cannot avoid the impression this whole fuss is probably not driven by a genuine concern with academic integrity. More plausibly, it is about some companies fighting a proxy war with Google. Oracle is one of the firms behind the famous Campaign and the Wall Street Journal – it is not a secret – is one of the newspapers reportedly seeking to obtain antitrust immunity to gain bargaining power vis-à-vis Facebook and Google.

Like Google, it looks like these companies (and/or the groups of which they are part) are trying to advance their corporate interests in the way that they see fit. Like Google, they are all perfectly entitled to do so.

The trouble with proxy wars is that the victims are third parties, not those fighting them. In this case, the victims could be academics and the credibility of legal research at large. Such may be the outcome if the agenda continues to be dictated by people who, I strongly suspect, do not care about research and academics, but about corporate profits (which, again, they are perfectly entitled to pursue).

We have reached the point where legal academics (and only legal academics) should take ownership of the issue and agree on some common standards regarding, inter alia, disclosures and conflicts of interests. Economists and physicians have been here before – and we European lawyers are probably lagging behind. I understand that several initiatives are under way, and I can only welcome these. I will do my part from the blog and elsewhere (more on this soon).

The positive impacts on common standards on conflicts of interest. I can only see upsides in agreeing on common standards among academics. As I explained back in January, some stakeholders like to exploit the absence of such standards to cast doubt on all research that disagrees with their view of the world. ‘You disagree with me? You must be hiding something, or you must be preparing the ground to get rich at some undefined point in the future’.

I understand that for some lawyers it is genuinely difficult to believe that there are people out there who, like myself, are just interested in ideas (and can make a decent living by teaching alone). Others, however, understand this very well, and still try to discredit people who disagree with them in good faith. Once common standards are agreed upon, innuendo and unfounded suspicion will be much less powerful and much less toxic.

One size does not fit all academics. My research has never been funded by corporate actors. And never will. My stance is more instinctive than the outcome of a reasoned decision. One could argue, entirely reasonably, that there is nothing wrong or unethical in capitalising on one’s knowledge and insights. This is probably true, but it will not make me change my mind.

Other academics whom I deeply respect and admire have produced research funded by corporate actors. I have no issue with that at all. There is not a single, right way to be an academic. This is, in fact, one of the reasons why I love my job. My colleagues at LSE, as well as academics in the EU competition law community, have all very different outlooks on work and life. The working environment at a university is, I am ready to guess, much richer and more diverse than at most other places (in particular, and Alfonso will not disagree, law firms).

Corporate-funded research can be done well. Many people are anxious about Google’s wealth and ability to influence the adoption of policies that are in its interest – such as net neutrality. I fully understand this position. I, for one, am particularly concerned about campaign funding and its impact on the democratic process.

This said, I believe it would be wrong to demonise all corporate-funded research. If it is done well (and it is, unfortunately, not always done well), there are mechanisms to zealously preserve academic independence and raise the standards of a discipline. Just think of the wonderful environment that, virtually out of scratch, Jean-Jacques Laffont and Jean Tirole created in Toulouse.

This success story, which has led to the production of ground-breaking and universally acclaimed work, cannot be fully understood without the role of corporate funds. It is in part thanks to this funding that Toulouse is able to compete head-to-head with much wealthier institutions based in the English-speaking world – including one that I happen to know well.

This is all for now. I am ready to move on and talk about the law!

Written by Pablo Ibanez Colomo

14 July 2017 at 4:17 pm

Posted in Uncategorized