NASA Conflict of Interest Right at the Top

I’m obnoxious when it comes to conflicts of interest or appearances of same in science and technology research and policy.  Today’s source of disappointment is not one of my usual targets, but the NASA Administrator, Charles Bolden.  I’m actually a bit surprised this hasn’t come up in the turf war squabbling between Congress and the Administration over the future of the agency.

The basics, per Nature: The NASA Office of Inspector General has chided the Administrator for an inappropriate contact with Marathon Oil Corporation, a company he has a significant financial interest in.  The contact concerned an alternative fuel project, OMEGA, which is administered by a NASA scientist and has received some NASA funding.  The contact with Marathon was in connection with a possible agreement between NASA and the Navy .

Hopefully you see where this at least looks bad.  And where conflicts of interest are concerned, looking bad is pretty bad.  The contact took place in late April, and was reported in the press in late June.

The Office of Inspector General (OIG) conducted an investigation, and in its report concludes that neither Marathon nor Administrator Bolden received any financial benefit from the call.  Marathon was not a party to the potential agreement, and Bolden did nothing as a result of the call to stop OMEGA, withhold funding, or kill the potential agreement.  However, the OIG did find that Bolden violated the ‘Ethics Pledge’ he signed when taking office.   This pledge stipulates that anyone who signs it will not

“participate in any particular matter involving specific parties that is directly and substantially related to my former employer or former clients”

Such matters include communications related to the performance of one’s duties.  Bolden called Marathon to gain additional knowledge about the specific kind of alternative fuel OMEGA is using.  Bolden agrees with the OIG finding that this violated the ‘Ethics Pledge,’ and has recused himself from any future activity involving OMEGA.There are a couple of other nuggets in the report worth noting.  The first is that NASA’s Office of General Counsel did nobody any favors by failing to notify the OIG of this potential conflict.  Bolden didn’t approach the attorneys until he received a press inquiry about his contact with Marathon.  I would hope that someone would have recognized the potential appearance of a conflict and notified the OIG.  Such notification would at least show critics that the allegations are taken much more seriously than they would be if in-house counsel were the only ones consulted.

Additionally, there seems to be some concern in some quarters over Administrator Bolden’s management/decision-making style, as expressed by Ames Director Pete Worden.  Granted, Worden is a champion of OMEGA, so he has a stake in this particular conflict.  However, Worden is, like Bolden, a retired General (Air Force for Worden, Marines for Bolden) with significant space experience (military satellites for Worden, astronaut corp for Bolden).  Arguably he could have the clout to fight against what he sees as an old boys network of decision making at NASA.

So, whether you’re dealing with grant reporting requirements, or dealings with your former boss or clients, the rule of thumb should be to err on the side of reporting and disclosing.  Better for you to do it than the press, or an arrogant little blogger who thinks your shoddy accounting deserves jail time.

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