Date Submitted: 9/05/2019

Question summary:

Conflict of interest?

Full question:

My research focuses on human rights issues related to extractive industries and mining in the developing world. I’ve been asked by a prominent mining company to appear on a panel discussion at one their annual shareholder meeting. They have offered to pay my expenses for attendance and a $2,000 honorarium for my time and effort. My contact at the company has not asked about the specific content of my remarks or suggested any effort to exercise editorial control. If I take this offer, am I compromising my ability to objectively assess this company’s record with respect to human rights?

Response 1

This is a tough one. In general, I think speaking at these kinds of events can be a useful exercise: engaging often means having difficult conversations with audiences and actors that you--or your academic audience--may view with skepticism. In response to your specific query: there's a difference between whether accepting the honorarium compromises your ability to objectively assess the company's record and whether an audience will view it as compromising said ability. Only you can know the former, but there are some (especially within the academic, but also advocacy communities), who might raise questions or objections. And since these kinds of payments typically wind up as public disclosures somewhere, you should assume the information will be available to inquiring minds. In this case, I would likely speak at the event and accept their offer of payment for costs of attendance, but reject the honorarium. Of course, you may not have a problem with being associated publicly with the company, in which case you may take the honorarium. But doing so will likely compromise your objectivity in the eyes of some. Whether that is a potential cost you are willing to accept is a separate issue.

Response 2

Taking money from an industry you study is always a dicey decision. On the other hand, you may learn a lot about the company at the meeting that could make your research more effective. If you choose to go, you might go with a strategy of radical transparency - making your statement and the reneumeration you receive public. If you have other funds you could also accept the offer to join but cover your own costs (and potentially ask that any honoraria be donated support human rights).

Response 3

I very much appreciate the instinct to ask about ethical issues here, such as conflict of interest, but in this particular case I do not perceive any real concerns. The key piece of information, from my perspective, is that the company contact has not asked to see, let alone vet or influence, the content of the researcher's remarks. This opportunity offers a chance for the researcher to offer a substantive, empirically informed presentation on their area of expertise to a stakeholder with a direct interest in that expertise. I don't think the researcher should be held responsible for anything the company might do on the basis of their presentation. In that regard, it is also helpful that the panel discussion is essentially a public one. The researcher deserves to be compensated for their time and expertise -- and I do not believe that the fact of compensation compromises their ability to assess the company's human rights record. The researcher might think about being prepared for an argumentative, possibly even hostile, response from other members of the panel or the audience. If they think that might affect their ability to engage in the conversation freely and directly, they might wish to decline the invitation. I do not, however, see that as a conflict of interest.

Ethics of Engagement