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Father of GPS accused of conflict of interest

Any battle over use of the electromagnetic spectrum is likely to provoke intense interest among physical scientists. Now a senior engineer at Stanford University in California is set to trigger discussion after being rapped by the NASA inspector-general for advising one company that its wireless networking plans might interfere with global positioning system (GPS) devices when he had a financial interest in a GPS service provider.

In a report posted on its website this morning, NASA’s inspector-general says that engineering professor Bradford Parkinson (pictured) “improperly participated in a matter that had a direct and predictable effect” on the financial interest of Trimble — a GPS service provider based in Sunnyvale, California, in which Parkinson held stock — when as a member of a NASA advisory committee he wrote to the Federal Communications Commission to advise that an expansion of wireless service by the telecom company LightSquared, based in Reston, Virginia, might affect GPS devices.

Parkinson has been dubbed “the father of GPS” for his work developing the technology while working for the US Air Force in 1973. The inspector-general found that he had properly disclosed his ties to Trimble in a disclosure statement to NASA and also concluded that his motive in opposing LightSquared’s expansion was not financial but came from a genuine desire to protect a resource that he had helped to create. Parkinson was not immediately available for comment. A statement from Jim Kirkland, vice-president of Trimble, notes that Parkinson was acting “in what he believed to be in the best interest of the continued viability of GPS, upon which hundreds of millions of people rely every day.”

LightSquared, which went into voluntary bankruptcy proceedings in May to keep operating as it sorted out regulatory difficulties, said it was committed to a fair and open process, and to working towards broadband service for all North Americans without compromising GPS performance. As part of the report, NASA’s inspector-general recommended that agency lawyers tighten up oversight of advisory committees, whose members include many senior space scientists.

Updated August 3rd to add comments received from Trimble.


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