Debunking some myths about private sector scientists

I had a discouraging interaction this week with an academic, who in another lifetime I might have described as a colleague. The academic and I disagree on the importance of pipelines in our modern society. That is not unexpected; we are different people, with different backgrounds and have differing priorities. What disappointed me was her behaviour during the exchange. Over the course of our discussion this relatively young academic accused me of being on the take and threw out a number of classic, uninformed myths about private sector scientists. I’m sure she thought she was making some strong points, but for those of us outside the bubble of academia all she was doing was demonstrating her ignorance of what professional scientists actually do.

To be clear, her opinions are understandable. As I’ve written before about teachers, most academics have never really left the education system. They will have progressed from high-school, through undergrad, to graduate school, maybe a post-doc or two and finally to an academic job; without ever spending significant time in the private sector. Her sheltered life in academia has not exposed her to how scientists in the private sector conduct themselves and so it is understandable that she gets a lot of things wrong. As a consequence, I have prepared this little primer for academics, like her, debunking common myths about their professional brethren.

 Myth: All private sector scientists are on the take

Her first utterance in our discussion thread set the tone for the entire exchange. In reply to my post she wrote:

Who pays you for spreading such misinformation?

Reading that line there are a lot of accusations built into those seven words. First and foremost there was no assumption of innocence or fair dealing on my part. The question wasn’t posed in the form “were you paid to write this” it started with the declaration that I was guilty of being on the take, the only question was about how much I was being paid to spread my “misinformation” (I will go into the whole “misinformation” later). It was cut-and-dried libel and were I a vindictive man I could have done something about it. Instead, I just replied that I was not a shill. She then demanded to know my employer’s name which I viewed as a veiled threat to go after me via my employment. I interpreted it that way because any half-way competent academic can do a Google search and my employment profile comes up pretty high on any search about me.

What I immediately inferred from our initial exchange is that she viewed me as an unethical person, it later became clear that she thought this solely because we disagreed and I work in the private sector. Now, I think if I could only relay one fact to my academic colleagues, it would be that it is possible to work in the private sector and still be an ethical person. Getting paid by a client does not make you beholden to that client. As I wrote in my post The implication of “Professionalism” in Climate Change discussions I am a professional. I am governed by the ethical standards of my registering professional organizations.

What academics may not recognize is that being a “Professional” means I am accountable for my actions as an R.P.Bio, P.Chem and CSAP. I am also accountable for the actions of my fellow professionals. This positive obligation recognizes the fact that as an organization our reputation is only as good as the reputation of our ethically weakest members. A failure to maintain the highest ethical standards of the organization hurts not only the individual involved but every individual certified by the organization. As such a single ethical lapse can be enough to cause the loss of one’s professional designation and often one’s ability to earn a living. This is consistent with the expression: a chain is only as strong as its weakest link.

Certainly some consultants will cross the line and advocate for their clients, and those consultants don’t tend to work for any length of time. If the regulator cannot trust you to maintain your objectivity then you are done. But then academics have bad apples too. The only difference is that the professional peer group actively seeks to exclude unethical practitioners. We have a vested interest in protecting our organization’s reputation.

Myth: You can’t accept an industrial salary and not be beholden to your clients and paychecks

Later is our conversation my academic friend thought she had a “gotcha” moment. She wrote:

You’re right. I should have asked him “has your private company received $ from oil and gas sector”?

Talk about a ridiculous line of reasoning: since my company had been paid by an oil company to clean up contaminated sites, I am somehow tainted by a scarlet letter whenever I speak on the topic of oil. Now anyone with half a lick of sense would recognize that the oil and gas sector represents a huge percentage of Canada’s gross domestic product and working for one company doesn’t mean you are beholden to all companies in the industry.

Here’s a thought experiment, if you worked as a consultant for MacDonald’s would you consider yourself beholden to Earl’s or the Keg? Now this academic holds a Chair funded by the Canadian government. Using her logic she is beholden to that government and should remain silent on all topics relating to government, including pipelines. Similarly her university has any number of sponsors. I’m guessing that her disclosure statement doesn’t include all the companies that sponsor her university? I would even bet that her university has also received an endowment from some company with dealings in the oil and gas sector. By her logic she, too, is tainted and should not speak on the topic.

The simple truth is that while I work to clean up contaminated sites, I am hired because I represent an objective third party. Both my clients and the regulators agree to accept my findings because both parties know I can do my work objectively and free from undue influence. My clients, meanwhile, know full well that any attempt to influence my findings would require me to report them to their superiors. Were I to fail to do so, I would, once again, risk revocation of my professional designation.

 Myth: Private sector scientists don’t do peer review

Having failed in her initial attempts to discredit me my tormentor decided to claim that all she was doing was some informal form of peer review. This goes back to her whole “misinformation” thing in her first tweet. Now over the course of our discussion I continually asked her to identify the “misinformation” in my article. It took a long time to draw her out but eventually she admitted that the only factual error she could identify was a minor issue about the location of a rail bridge with respect to Montreal’s water intake. Humorously enough, this academic is one of “those” peer reviewers, you know the kind, they speak first then check references second. In our case when I asked for a citation to demonstrate my error she promptly provided me with one that supported my position.

 It ends up her “misinformation” smear was simply me coming to a different conclusion than her while looking at the same data set. I call that a difference of opinion, she feels it represents me spreading “misinformation”.

Having failed to embarrass me she hit me with that oh so common myth that private sector scientists:

“I see you’re not accustomed to peer review”.

As I wrote in my post on blogging and the irrelevance of academic peer review in multi-disciplinary fields the peer review process is not restricted to the academic field. As I discussed above, professionals have a vested interest in ensuring that their output is of the highest caliber. As a result no report going out of our office does so without a full internal peer review. As for our professional organization, the CSAP process includes a detailed auditing process to ensure the quality of the output before it goes to the regulator.

Moreover, unlike my peers in the academic community, when I prepare a technical report all the data associated with the work goes into the report. I don’t get to hide source code. Anything that is necessary to ensure the repeatability of my work goes with the report and is made public.

Going back to the peer review process, one might argue that private sector peer review is far more intrusive than that of the academic community. If an academic makes a mistake in a report submitted for peer review, the reviewer sends it back and suggests a correction. If I send in a report with an error I risk the loss of my credentials and the end my career. So when an academic brags about the quality of their peer-reviewed while belittling the work of professionals, consider how many academics would still be practicing if rejection of a paper resulted in a disciplinary hearing?

Myth: You aren’t a real scientist without academic publications

Now the biggest myth thrown out by this academic was that I couldn’t be a very good scientist because I lack peer-reviewed academic publications.

All right, here’s my explanation of why Blair King’s article on #EnergyEast is garbage

It’s disconcerting that Blair King never reveals his job title, but only that he is a ‘professional chemist’ and a lukewarmer

Reply from another

what is BK’s job title? (I thought he was enviro scientist) and what’s a lukewarmer? (guessing someone skeptical of CC)

Reply back

enviro scientist is not a job title. especially if he doesn’t publish any scientific articles

That is like a basketball player arguing that a soccer player is not an athlete because he hasn’t scored any baskets in the NBA. In academia peer-reviewed academic articles are the way they keep score. In the private sector we have different incentives and deliverables. My professional status and the almost-weekly calls from head-hunters represent all the reassurance I need that I am doing a reasonable job.

As for academic publications, as I have written previously, my graduate work was interdisciplinary in nature and involved developing systems to allow data collected by governmental scientists to be evaluated for its reliability and quality; stored in information systems; and made available for subsequent re-use by other researchers. Upon graduation I went immediately to the private sector and saw no real value in writing up my research since the output of my research was already being used on a daily basis as a component of the information systems used by our provincial and federal governments and was being widely shared by those governments (including through workshops that I was asked to moderate).

As for the practical applications of my research, well it was almost immediately applied at my current employer and has become a standard in our industry for the last decade. I cannot imagine a better demonstration of the value of my research than the fact that our clients insisted that our competitors conduct data analysis in the manner suggested by my research and in doing so our clients have done more to publicize my research than any academic publication might ever have done. As for the future, I don’t plan to submit my writing to a peer-reviewed academic journal anytime soon as I do not see any particular value in doing so.

I must admit, the funniest comment  came at the end of that exchange above when the academic insisted that “Environmental Scientist” is not a job title. I find it amusing that the academic can’t accept that job titles exist that are not directly reflected by a department in a university. Perhaps the academic should explain her view to Eco Canada or any of the hundreds of other organizations that both hire and train Environmental Scientists.

Looking back at our conversation on Twitter, I remain amazed that a scientist of such obvious repute would behave so poorly. I suppose it comes down to what I suggested right at the top of this article. Often academics live such a sheltered existence that really don’t know how the rest of us live. I suppose there really is truth to that old expression about academics living in ivory towers.

As for the pièce de résistance, I will leave you with this gem:

is @BlairKing_ca a paid troll to disrupt the #EnergyEast debate in Quebec?

Shortly after posting this, the academic blocked me on Twitter while engaging in a run of subtweets (some of which were forwarded to me by interested others). Gotta love those high-minded academics.

Author’s note: an earlier version of this post included the actual tweets which identified the academic. However, since I am going for a general post with general lessons rather than a hit piece I have removed all identifying information.

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13 Responses to Debunking some myths about private sector scientists

  1. Arthur Dent says:

    As a professional chemist in the UK I sympathise. Some academics and many people working for NGOs have exactly the same prejudiced opinions as your correspondent, and it is getting worse as the poisonous views that they spread infect both regulatory bodies and the public.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Tom says:

    As an oil industry geoscientist, the question I always want to ask is “How often do you make predictions that will definitively be proven right or wrong within a time frame that will have an impact on your career?. Peer review doesn’t do that. All passing peer review means is that a couple of other academics thought the paper was interesting and found nothing obviously wrong with the methodology.

    Liked by 4 people

  3. gseine says:

    Just a note to tell you that I have a great deal more respect for some that asks the free market to pay their salary than for those who use the tax collector to provide it. While I’m sure there are a few good people working for government, offering value for value is usually not high on their priorities.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Chester Draws says:

    Some academics and many people working for NGOs have exactly the same prejudiced opinions as your correspondent</i.

    But ordinary people (i.e. voters) are well aware that the standards of private enterprise are higher than academia in terms of technical expertise in the real world.

    Thought experiment: would you hire an accountant of 20 year's experience in the work place but only the minimum required qualifications, or one who has no work experience but has lovely academic qualifications?

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Pingback: Week in review – science edition | Climate Etc.

  6. Andy May says:

    I am a scientist working for a private company in oil and gas and once sent an email to a Politico journalist pointing out an error she made reading an EIA Web page. Her first response was “who is paying who am I speaking for!” I noted I spoke for myself and in any case she misread the page. Two days later I got a sheepish email from her admitting she misread it and that wind was not as cheap as natural gas combined cycle. At least she checked out what I said. Often they see “oil and gas” and completely stop listening at that point. Pure prejudice. When you stop listening, you learning.

    Like

  7. mwgrant says:

    Quite simply, this is a post that has needed to be written. Thank you.

    Like

  8. Manniac says:

    You may be interested in this blog post from another Canuck, David Zaruk:

    The denormalisation of Industry

    Like

  9. rogercaiazza says:

    Per usual a very well done post and one with which I agree completely.

    One comment – The academics always claim that a private sector scientist cannot possibly be unbiased because of their funding. How come funding for their research never engenders the same potential for bias for their point of view?

    Liked by 2 people

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  11. kakatoa says:

    Blair,

    Some internet conductivity issues prevented me from letting you know that Dr. Tao (Energy Forecasting blog) finally got one of his papers through the academic publishing process. http://blog.drhongtao.com/2016/02/improving-short-term-load-forecast-accuracy-via-combining-sister-forecasts.html
    As he used to work in the private sector I thought you might find his thoughts on the process of codifying new knowledge in academia vs his experience in the private sector or interest.

    Dr. Tao’s most recent post, http://blog.drhongtao.com/2016/03/relative-humidity-for-load-forecasting-models.html , also discusses his experience with the peer review process.

    Like

  12. Arno Arrak says:

    I was a private sector scientist until Richard Nixon decided to cancel the last three moon shots. At the time I was with Grumman, the prime contractor for the lunar lander, and in January 1970 they fired ten thousand people destined to work on those cancelled lunar landers. I was one of the ten thousand. .My work was not in climate science and the types of attacks we see today had not yet been invented. There was a prejudice against non-academic workers, however, but it did not amount to blackballing their work like you have now. I was able to get through that peer review of theirs numerous times.

    Like

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