Think Tank Scholar or Corporate Consultant? It Depends on the Day

Eric Lipton, Nicholas Confessore and Brooke Williams, Think Tank Scholar or Corporate Consultant? It Depends on the Day. The New York Times and the New England Center for Investigative Reporting, 8 August 2016. “Acting as independent arbiters to shape government policy, many [think tank] researchers also have corporate roles that are sometimes undisclosed.”

An examination of 75 think tanks found an array of researchers who had simultaneously worked as registered lobbyists, members of corporate boards or outside consultants in litigation and regulatory disputes, with only intermittent disclosure of their dual roles.

With their expertise and authority, think tank scholars offer themselves as independent arbiters, playing a vital role in Washington’s political economy. Their imprimatur helps shape government decisions that can be lucrative to corporations.

But the examination identified dozens of examples of scholars conducting research at think tanks while corporations were paying them to help shape government policy. Many think tanks also readily confer “nonresident scholar” status on lobbyists, former government officials and others who earn their primary living working for private clients, with few restrictions on such outside work.

Largely free from disclosure requirements, the researchers’ work is often woven into elaborate corporate lobbying campaigns.

“A report authored by an academic is going to have more credibility in the eyes of the regulator who is reading it,” said Michael J. Copps, a former F.C.C. commissioner who is a special adviser for the Media and Democracy Reform Initiative at Common Cause, a liberal group. “They are seeking to build credibility where none exists.”…

…[A]s The Times was making inquiries about the potential for conflicts of interest among some think tank researchers, officials at a number of the nation’s most prominent institutions — including Brookings and the Peterson Institute for International Economics — acknowledged that they were revising conflict-of-interest policies.

“I think we have too much influence of funded research with clear interests at stake that is treated as though it is independent and academic research,” said Yochai Benkler, a professor at Harvard Law School and co-director of its Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society. “There is no culture in the discipline to mark funded research clearly, or systematically treat it as less reliable.”

Several weeks after Tom Wheeler was sworn in as the F.C.C. chairman in 2013, he received a letter signed by more than a dozen prominent economists and scholars identified by their affiliations with Washington think tanks or academic institutions.

The economic evidence, they declared, showed that the internet should not be regulated as a public utility. They urged Mr. Wheeler to reject “net neutrality” regulations that would give the federal government additional powers to oversee the $100 billion market for internet services, dominated by AT&T, Verizon and Comcast.

A footnote on the first page of the letter indicated that none of the scholars who signed had been compensated by stakeholder companies. But of the dozen studies they submitted as evidence, more than half had been funded by telecommunications giants or based on other work for the companies, industry ties that were disclosed only in footnotes in the original studies.

No federal rules required broader disclosure. Yet on many highly technical policy issues like telecommunications regulation, scholarship is dominated by industry-funded research, according to a review of hundreds of studies, regulatory filings and other documents….

Few policy battles have had higher stakes in recent years than the debate over net neutrality — a catchall term for proposals to restrict internet service providers from blocking websites or regulating speed.

To bolster their claims that the regulations would hurt consumers, companies have financed research that contends the rules would reduce investment in new services and raise prices. That work is used to shape the public debate and to build an industry-funded narrative in the regulatory record, one that the F.C.C. is required by law to evaluate.

Industry-sponsored research has also figured prominently in court battles over F.C.C. efforts to regulate the internet. When Verizon successfully opposed an earlier F.C.C. rule on net neutrality, more than half of the 23 studies or expert declarations cited in court filings had been sponsored directly by telecommunications companies or trade associations, according to an analysis by The Times. Other studies had been published under the banner of think tanks but written by scholars who consulted extensively for companies….

While private consulting arrangements can leave scholars’ ties to corporate interests murky, the conflict is more apparent when think tank researchers do double duty as registered lobbyists….

Some scholars add another twist: They serve on corporate boards directly related to their areas of expertise at think tanks.