Josef Korbel School of International Studies - Ethics of Engagement

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Thomas Schelling testifies before Congress in October, 1969

Date Submitted: 3/22/2022

Question summary:

Passing judgement on organizations that offer me research consultancies ?

Full question:

Is it really my place as an academic researcher to pass judgement on organizations that offer me research consultancies in areas that align with my expertise? After all, my research is unbiased and well executed. Isn’t it better that I provide clients with sound academic research rather than turn down their work, which increases the chances that the next consultant they hire will have an axe to grind?

Response 1

If I understand the concern correctly, the questioner is worried that if they turn down consultancy with an organization, it may result in lower quality in-house research and potentially bad advice to the organization. Without understanding what sort of axe there might be to grind, it is a bit hard to answer this one. With the info available, I think that scholars can dictate terms with organizations that help resolve some of the concerns. Transparency can be helpful, in terms of both the agreement between researcher and organization and the results of the research. I'm also a bit skeptical of the questioner's assertion that their research is "unbiased and well executed." In my experience the researcher is often biased in their own assessment of their own work, and I have seen many excellent scholars struggle with work in which they, some small incremental decision at a time, talk themselves into a research product that they would likely be critical of if it was carried out by someone else. This is, after all, where preregistration came from, as well as the need for declaring conflicts of interest. Many researchers with excellent reputations have succumbed to the temptation to tell organizations what they want to hear when a sizable paycheck is on the line. Agreements that allow researchers to preregister expectations in a transparent fashion and share the results of research are, in my mind, less likely to be problematic in this regard. I would urge the questioner to think hard not just about their own integrity, but how others would assess the situation should details of the consultancy become public. Were enough safeguards in place?

Response 2

When you are hired as a consultant, your job is to complete the work outlined in the terms of reference of your consultancy, period. If you have been asked explicitly to evaluate the organization's work, then do so in the "unbiased and well executed" manner that you carry out your research more generally. If you are hired to carry out other research tasks, then it is not appropriate to offer unsolicited advice/judgement. While some consultants may indeed "have an axe to grind," you should you assume that your work is being carried out independently of their efforts and that your judgements are in no way contingent on theirs.


Response 3

I’m not entirely sure how to interpret your question. Is the organization asking you specifically to pass judgment? If not, is your question whether to accept the consultancy or turn it down? In my view if you can provide sound, unbiased research then I think there is nothing unethical about accepting the consultancy and speaking truth to power. I think the problem you may arrive at is when they ask you to write up findings as part of your consultancy that you feel compromise your ability to truly speak truth to power. Even so, then I think you’re dealing in shades of grey. There is what you will write which (especially if they must make it public somehow) will need to be tailored to the organization in ways you may not prefer, so know your bottom line: I draw it at outright fabrication or sins of important omission, but there are other nuances you can only grasp in a specific context. Bear in mind that much of the consulting will go on behind the scenes. I am at this moment engaged with a stakeholder who is unhappy with the draft I’ve prepared because it sounds ‘judgmental.’ I’m open to negotiating the tone of what I’ve written, and reframing some content to make it more palatable, but I’m not going to compromise my research principles to be told what to write, and you can bet that I’ll be taking advantage of the ‘briefing’ and ‘review and comment’ dialogues to be pressing my perspective as a neutral academic more forcefully in person than I may be permitted to do in print. At any rate, if your qualm is whether to accept the consultancy at all, my view is that it is better to do so, and have an inroad to communicate critical insights. It’s not a choice between passing judgment by passing up the consultancy, or becoming a tool of the stakeholder. There is a broad middle ground where you can locate considerable power and value, and I encourage you to try it – but, know your bottom line.


Sie Center Ethics of Engagement