Monday, 19 July 2010

Does research funding make scientists unethical?


Today’s Times makes a mountain from the wholly unsurprising news that big oil companies have funded research organisations and lobbyists. And that part of this funding relates to the debate around anthropogenic climate change. Apparently such funding is officially a bad thing – at least so far as the media are concerned. Presumably this is done on the “whoever pays the piper calls the tune” principle – or rather the jaundiced belief that intelligent, ethical scientific researchers would never take money from wicked bad business. Only nasty corrupt scientists would do that.

All this, of course, puts us at the heart of the debate about the funding of scientific research, the impact such funding has on the integrity of the researchers and whether the funder really does call the tune in terms of research findings. Others are more able than I to answer these questions but there is a further point relating to state and NGO funded research.

It seems to me that, if the cynics are right and private sector funded research is compromised by the agenda and/or objectives of the funder then we must ask the same questions of research funded from public and charitable sources. After all these organisations (and those who manage them) have an ‘agenda’ – a set of aims and objectives – and would not be too happy if the findings of the research compromised or undermined those objectives. What would happen, for example, if research funded by the Department for Energy & Climate Change or by WWF raised serious doubts about anthropogenic global warming? The little devil on my shoulder suggests that such findings would be lost somewhere in the vast overhang of paperwork within the funding organisation!

And this is the point – all research runs the risk of being compromised by the requirements of the funder, whoever that funder might be. This does not mean the research is wrong, badly conducted or unreliable (although all of these things can apply it is a logical fallacy to link them to the funding) or that such research doesn’t contribute to the totality of our understanding. However, I find it rather sad that we have reached this juncture.

Let’s speculate that the Joseph Rowntree Foundation funds me to conduct a study of social capital in Cullingworth. Do you, dear reader, think that I will be somehow less of a laissez faire liberal because I’m funded by a bunch of statist, interventionist lefties? Thought so – my integrity on such matters is clear (which is probably why JRF won’t be funding me)!

So why then do some of you think other ethical, responsible researchers are compromised by being funded by an oil company, a publisher, a charity or the Government?


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