The 'Uber files' and the integrity of scientific research


Institutional Communication Service

21 July 2022

An extensive journalistic investigation, conducted by Britain's Guardian together with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, has exposed the aggressive lobbying practices conducted between 2013 and 2017 by Uber, the ride-hailing service that, according to documents released to the public, violated the law, deceived regulators and took advantage of acts of violence against its drivers to lobby politicians and the public. Back then, the company was led by its co-founder Travis Kalanick, who was forced to resign in 2017 following a series of scandals. The 124,000 documents internal to the company and leaked by Mark MacGann, former head of lobbying for Europe, the Middle East and Africa, also reveal the involvement of a number of academics, who were funded to conduct research later used to reinforce positive perceptions toward the company.

For example, according to reports in the Guardian, Uber reportedly paid two French academics $100,000 to research the company's effects on the economy. The research was then picked up by major news outlets, highlighting the benefits of the "Uber model" when new regulations on Uber's business were being discussed in France. The two researchers told the Guardian that they acted transparently, declaring their collaboration with Uber. Similar cases have occurred in Germany and the United States.

The instrumental use of think tanks and scientific research for public relations is a practice that has been in use for decades: for a struggling business to gather arguments in its defence from a supposedly neutral and objective body can be very useful. Research institutions that collaborate with private stakeholders, receiving funding or gaining access to data that are not publicly available, have taken various measures to ensure the quality and independence of their work, and cases like Uber's, at least for the more severe institutions, are an exception. Indeed, the risk to academia is great, as Patrick Gagliardini, Professor of Econometrics at USI Faculty of Economics and Pro-Rector for Research, explains.

Professor Gagliardini, what can be the consequences for universities of such behaviour?

In general, conduct that harms good scientific practices can lead to reputational crises and loss of credibility in the eyes of the public and the rest of academia. This is because the credibility of scientific research is based on independence from external influences.

However, collaboration with private stakeholders is valuable: how to make it righteous?

It is crucial to frame collaborations through clear agreements that describe the respective fields of responsibility and pay attention to aspects such as scientific freedom. Another important goal is to avoid as far as possible any restrictions on the publication of results and to exclude obstacles in the careers of young male and female researchers.

How widespread is the awareness of these malpractices in the Swiss academic sector?

I think that, in general, Swiss academia has a significant interest in avoiding research malpractices, to the extent that the reputational capital of Swiss academic institutions is very high.

What tools does USI have to ensure research integrity? Are they enough, or is it possible to do better?

As in any field, more and better can always be accomplished. However, much has already been provided for by USI, starting with the regulations stipulating that any conflict of interest must be avoided in carrying out research activities. In practice, USI professors must annually certify to the Rectorate any activity likely to generate, even potentially, conflicts of interest with the activities carried out at USI. USI also has an Ethics Committee that speaks out on ethical issues related to research projects and a Research and Knowledge Transfer Service that monitors and regulates contracts with companies, intellectual property issues, and foundation donations.

On a more general level, we have developed a Charta that contains some founding principles, including "the freedom to create and the responsibility to act." USI has joined various national and international initiatives to promote fair practices in research in different areas, such as replicability of results or research with animal experimentation. Recently, a debate has been promoted within the Academic Senate and the Research Committee to address the issue of ethics and scientific integrity in general, with the aim of promoting awareness-raising activities aimed at researchers, which could lead to the development of an internal document on research ethics. Obviously, in addition to institutional framework initiatives, it is also the sensitivity and attention of individual researchers that can make a difference: for this reason, in addition to regulations and certification, USI has also decided to promote discussion on the importance of academic integrity, fostering a culture in which those doing research are made aware of the risks of potential exploitation.