Mike the Mad Biologist

So, if you go on the teevee machine and tell people that investment banks should be allowed to pay out dividends, and you’re simply an economics professor, we should probably take the claim at face value. But what if you have tens of thousands of shares as compensation for being a board member? Oops:

I did some more checking, and Tyson has received over a million dollars in cash and stock options combined from Morgan Stanley. As I’ve noted before, you can’t be a stateman and a salesman.

Comments

  1. #1 S
    December 26, 2008

    You are a science researcher, and advocate increased funding for science. By your reasoning there, clearly there is a conflict of interest, yes?

  2. #2 llewelly
    December 26, 2008

    There’s a difference in scale; Mike is unlikely to ever make over a million dollars from science.

  3. #3 Mokele
    December 26, 2008

    Also, at any university, you’re required to make any conflicts known, and many journals have little statements like “the authors have such and such an interest” or “the authors have no conflict of interest”.

    Finally, increased science funding via NIH and NSF has zero conflict potential, since you get the money regardless of whether you confirm of refute your hypothesis – being wrong won’t disqualify you from future funding.

  4. #4 William
    December 26, 2008

    A science researcher might have a self-interest in advocating increased funding for science, but there is no conflict of interest. In fact, I would say the two positions get along just great—the job of a science researcher is to pursue scientific research, including funding for such research, while the job of a “science funding advocate” is to advocate for funding to… pursue scientific research. See, no conflict.

    The conflict in the above is that, as an economics professor, Tyson is expected to advocate policies that further the greater good (ie. people other than herself). But she is also advocating policies from which she would benefit. See, conflict.

    Now, having a conflict of interest is not necessarily an ethical transgression. Hiding one is.

  5. #5 William
    December 26, 2008

    I should add that I realize S might be trolling. But once I got thinking about the difference between self-interest and a conflict of interest, I couldn’t resist the urge to post, since it is such a fun topic.

  6. #6 S
    December 27, 2008

    OK, its perfectly possible that I do not understand the difference between self-interest and conflict of interest. I am still not completely clear on the difference, though. I’ll make an attempt at defining the two terms as I understand them, and hopefully someone can correct me. I understand “self-interest” to refer to a mode of decision-making where you decide on an issue such that your personal well-being is optimized. I understand “conflict of interest” to refer to a situation where someone is asked to make a decision on an issue where the outcome of the decision will have a significant positive or negative impact on them, which increases the risk that the final decision is influenced more by their personal self-interest than whatever objective standards the decision is supposed to be made by.

    By these definitions, both MtMB and Tyson have conflicts of interest. On the issue of science funding, MtMB is a researcher — he benefits from increased science funding* by having a larger pool of research funds to draw from, which at least in the short term** will either make it easier to get funding or increase the value of each grant. Thus, COI. On the issue of dividends, Tyson is a large stockholder — she benefits from allowing companies to pay out dividends, which gets her more immediate cash. Again, COI.

    You make the statement that Tyson is obliged to advocate policies that favor the greater good, and define that to mean “people other than herself”. First, a definitions issue: is Tyson’s well-being excluded from the greater good? I take issue with the “other than herself” part; I believe a better definition is to include Tyson but not weight her well-being more than anyone else’s well-being. Now, COI raises the strong risk that Tyson is weighing her well-being more than others, and I would consequently turn a much, much closer eye to her views on dividends. That said, I do not see any reason why that should automatically disqualify her views. It is entirely possible that she thinks allowing dividends improves society in some way, and that her benefit is just a nice side effect. I would be interested in reading Tyson’s rationale on the dividends recommendation. To draw a parallel to MtMB, I think he believes (and I agree) that increased science funding will benefit society, and that he will likely do better under those conditions is just a happy side-effect.

    I concur with the statement that concealing a COI is definitely an ethical transgression. From the linked article, Tyson definitely seems to have been guilty of this, and it was a definite lapse on her part, regardless of her sincerity.

    Finally, with regards to scale: My (junior) professors*** have indicated that increased science funding would be a major benefit to them and have the potential to significantly impact their quality of life. Similarly, Tyson will benefit significantly from dividends (and more, the bailout, which should be the real issue here). I would be interested in knowing the total swing of dividends in her NW and in her overall standard of life. If it’s all she’s basing her life on, then there’s a difference. If its just a part of it, then I would guess the net significance to her is on par with funding change to a researcher.

    Disclosure: I am a science student looking to pursue a career in that most lucrative and secure of fields, observational astrophysics. I strongly oppose the bailout, though I try to keep myself objective and maintain an open mind. Which means I disagree with the “if…you’re simply an economics professor, we should probably take the claim at face value” part of MtMB’s post.

    *I make the assumption that MtMB’s advocacy for increased support for science is inclusive of his own discipline, which I feel is fairly safe :).
    **until the supply of scientists rises, I don’t know how elastic that is but given the PhD training period I would expect at least 5 years or so.
    ***The senior ones don’t complain about funding as much.

  7. #7 Mokele
    December 27, 2008

    S, you’re missing some important differences.

    First, unlike stock options or dividends paid directly to someone, increased science funding won’t *directly* benefit MtMB, myself, or anyone the same way. It’s not going straight to the pockets of the advocate, but rather making a bigger communal pot, which we still have to compete for. If my grant proposal is shit, the size of the pot won’t make a bit of difference.

    Second, *everyone* advocates for their self interest. Stock market players advocate for lower capital gains tax. Farmers advocate for more farm subsidies. And scientists advocate for more science funding. All of these are different from what Laura Tyson did in that all our cards are on the table. Anyone listening can immediately see the self interest, so that forces us to make the case on other grounds.

    Finally, there’s a difference between advocating and advising. When MtMB says “we need more science funding”, he’s advocating an opinion – a strongly supportable one, but just an opinion – and everyone knows it. He’s not supposed to be being objective or unbiased, but rather to make his voice heard amid the thousands of competing interests so that people who *are* in the position to make policy decisions will think back and say “Hey, wasn’t there some guy talking about increasing science funding? He made some pretty good arguments.” In contrast, what Tyson was doing was (supposedly) presenting objective evidence and objective analysis of the evidence, providing the facts which people check the arguments of advocates against. If MtMB was preparing a government report about scientific funding, analyzing the up and down sides, and providing an objective assessment, *then* there would be a conflict of interest, because his interest in funding may lead him to ‘bend the facts’ (no offense Mike, just hypothetically), and if he didn’t reveal it, nobody would know.

    It’s all about the information. Am I expecting opinion with self interest, or factual analysis? In the former, self interest and CoI is blatantly apparent or simply assumed, but in the latter, any SI or CoI undermines the purported objectivity which gives the ‘factual analysis’ its weight and value.

  8. #8 oyun
    December 27, 2008

    I should add that I realize S might be trolling. But once I got thinking about the difference between self-interest and a conflict of interest, I couldn’t resist the urge to post, since it is such a fun topic.

  9. #9 Jim Thomerson
    December 28, 2008

    I think the person at fault here is Rachel Mattow. She has, to her credit, admitted not doing her homework on Tyson. I don’t fault Tyson, as surely she assumed that Rachel knew of her directorship. I don’t think there was a conflict of interest in Tyson’s case. I doubt she would be a director if her understanding of economics did not support such a relationship. That you or I, or soome of her colleagues in economics, would disagree with her is not necessarily evidence of a conflict of interest on her part.

  10. #10 Craig Pennington
    December 28, 2008

    I don’t fault Tyson, as surely she assumed that Rachel knew of her directorship.

    I think that Tyson has a positive ethical obligation to ensure that her views are not presented as if she were a disinterested party. She failed at that and I do fault her.

  11. #11 magic
    August 14, 2009

    very thanks for article sesli chat

  12. #12 nusret
    August 25, 2009

    thanks very