One of the weird things about my industry that often strikes me as weird, if not possibly hazardous, is the role that our clients play in any given project.
Sometimes we are contracted by a regulatory agency, but the majority of the time we are contracted by the proponents of a project. So, for example, say that Amalgamated Paverific wants to build a new parking lot. They will apply to the appropriate agencies for the permits to build the lot. The agencies will apply their regulations as appropriate, and determine the permit conditions, which may include that the project proponent perform environmental studies to determine the impact of construction. For this illustration, let's assume that Amalgamated Paverific has to apply to a federal agency, let's say the Federal Office of Grooviness (FOG), and the FOG determines that the proposed parking lot is to be built in an area that is known for alot of archaeological sites, perhaps the homeland of the Whatchagonnadotonites. So, FOG determines that an archaeological study will be necessary to evaluate the possibility that archaeological sites will be disturbed by construction.
So, does the FOG, being groovy and all, contract with my archaeology company, Armstrong Archaeological Resources iDentification Verification Assessment Recovery and Knowledge generation (AARDVARK)? No, they don't. They direct Amalgamated Paverific to find a consultant, and they, in turn, find us. So, I am now contracted to the entity that actually stands to gain something if there is nothing found during the archaeological study.
This creates an obvious tension.
Now, to be fair and honest, all of AARDVARK's archaeologists are Registered Professional Archaeologists, meaning that they meet certain minimum qualifications and have signed on to a statement of ethics that precludes taking bribes or denying results to favor a client. I can tell you from experience that the vast majority of archaeologists take these codes of ethics very seriously, and most of us became archaeologists because of a love for archaeology and not to make money (if we wanted to make money, we would have stayed FAR away from archaeology). So, violations of the code of ethics are rare.
But, nonetheless, there is a definite reason why people would see a conflict of interests even if it doesn't play out.
Also, FOG doesn't bow out completely. They have agency archaeologists who review our work, approve our research designs, review our reports, and maintain the right to visit us int he field to check up on us. So, we are not entirely unsupervised. Nonetheless, they can't be there all of the time, and it is therefore difficult for them to ensure honesty at all times, and they rely on their relationships with us (as well as the threat of future refusals of work) to keep us in line.
So, again, there is reason to be concerned about this arrangement.
I want to emphasize, again, that violations of ethics in order to curry favor with or benefit a client are extremely rare. I am not claiming that the sky is falling, it certainly is not. However, I know of a handful of archaeologists who are on the take, and I know that the current arrangement benefits them.
This is an uncomfortable tension. I have had more than one client take the attitude that I am their consultant and therefore should only be producing things that benefit them, truth and professional ethics be damned. I have always worked through these situations with my code of ethics and my conscience intact, as do the majority of my colleagues.
The alternative would seem to be either for the agencies to have enough archaeologists on staff to do all of this work themselves, or else to contract directly with us. This presents its own problems, however, both economic and political (really, can you see a bill requiring this passing through Congress? Neither can I).
I don't know the solution, but it is a potential source of problems, even if it has caused relatively few so far. I think that, perhaps, part of the solution is simply letting people in on these facts, as I am doing here.