Oil scare shows conflict of interest

By Liu Ching-yi 劉靜怡  / 

Sun, Nov 10, 2013 - Page 8

The storm over adulterated cooking oils has touched a nerve with Taiwanese who are concerned about food safety. There is a potential conflict of interest controversy smoldering under the surface because the companies involved have for a long time had a close relationship with the academics who advise the government. If there is a positive side, it is that the government might begin to reflect on what brought about the situation where businesses and academics work so closely together, which has led some people to succumb to greed.

Cooperation between manufacturing, academia, political and commercial interests in food safety are common. Conflicts of interest are a fact of life, whether they be related to food safety, public health, biotech and pharmaceuticals, environmental impact assessments, nuclear energy, public engineering and construction projects, telecommunications and broadcasting, cross-strait economics and trade affairs, or legal conflict mediation. The problem is ubiquitous and it has been an open secret in academia for a long time.

If the government has no intention to do anything to address the issues created by the tight-knit cooperation between manufacturers, officials and academics, it is playing with fire.

The government relies on various channels to amass the relevant data with which to make an informed decision when monitoring these numerous and complex issues. However, a fundamental part of its job is to protect the public interest; people’s rights to life, health and property. Therefore, the departments concerned need to take ultimate responsibility and cannot sidestep their duties or pass the buck to other parts of the government machine.

The government needs to rely on its own specialist resources and to make sure that they proceed in a fair, just, transparent and effective manner so that it can conduct scientific research and enforce standards. Even if it needs to seek expert opinion from elsewhere, such advice must be consultative in nature and cannot be used by the government as an excuse to shirk its own legal and political responsibilities.

Even if the government needs to outsource research to academic experts because of its limited resources, it must still set up and implement a mechanism to investigate — in a transparent way — any potential conflicts of interest and to make sure that they do not occur. Otherwise, academic experts with party and political connections who are also handsomely paid by public or private-sector organizations can become a bridge between politics and business. Officials who have left their government positions can become facilitators who show people how to cross that bridge.

Once this door is opened, it cannot be closed. It will be much worse than a soccer player who is also acting as referees, it will be open season for businesses, politicians and academics to conspire and concoct all kinds of facts and figures to distort public perceptions of issues. This will allow the people on the inside to feed like vultures at the public’s expense while they refuse to reveal — or allow others to reveal — the truth.

So why are people asked to accept that universities or research institutions are sincere, honest, impartial and independent, and that the information they produce is reliable? Why is the public asked to believe that institutions charged with public governance are still trustworthy and authoritative, or that government policy is above criticism?

The experience of other countries has shown that when academia becomes involved in public governance, government oversight, and industrial development and oversight, the complexities of the democratic system mean that complications arise, and the results are not always desirable.

When a government official alludes that unnamed people are involved in breaking the law, the public has a right to know who or what it is the official is referring to. That official also has a duty to identify the lawbreakers and the nature of what they have done, otherwise it it difficult to dispel suspicions of collusion.

When officials lament that other countries are speeding ahead while Taiwan seems to be treading water, why do they not admit the strong likelihood that the difference is that Western governments have already put an effective and workable support system in place prior to introducing any development policies or stimulus measures, rather than rushing off half-cocked, announcing the relaxation of regulations and waiting to see what effect the changes have?

Even universities like Harvard and MIT, which are known for the cooperation they promote between businesses and academics, have long required researchers to fully disclose any aspects of their participation that could give rise to a conflict of interest.

Is it the case that there are no examples to follow? There are, and it is not that they cannot be followed, it is that people choose not to do so.

Liu Ching-yi is a professor at National Taiwan University’s Graduate Institute of National Development.

Translated by Paul Cooper