Cash for comments vs. public funding of science

By Stephan Lewandowsky
Professor, School of Experimental Psychology and Cabot Institute, University of Bristol
Posted on 6 March 2015
Filed under Politics

The revelation of the “cash for comments” that may have turned Dr. Soon into a mercury expert has highlighted the potentially pernicious role of funding from vested interests in science. (Non-Australian readers who are not familiar with the “cash for comments” saga will find it explained on Wikipedia).

Predictably, the fallout from the Soon affair has included the suggestion that funding from industry for specific “deliverables” is equivalent to the public funding that (climate) scientists receive from granting agencies and research councils. Indeed, around 20% of the American public is willing to endorse the proposition that climate change is a hoax perpetrated by “corrupt scientists who wish to spend more taxpayer money on climate research”, suggesting that confusion about public funding is relatively widespread.

The differences between public scientific funding and “cash for comments” thus deserve to be highlighted. To ascertain whether funding may have a detrimental impact on scientific integrity, we can ask three simple questions:

Who receives the money?

If a company funds a scientist by topping up his or her salary by $100,000, then this will likely impose a certain obligation to tailor the “deliverables” to the funder’s satisfaction. This should be self-evident, but it already establishes a notable difference to public grant funding: In most countries, research grants do not contribute to a scientist’s salary.

To illustrate, I received funding from the Australian Research Council for nearly 15 years after my promotion to Full Professor, and none of that funding made a difference to my salary during that time (it didn’t before the promotion either, although to the extent that funding is a criterion for promotion, one can argue that a grant accelerates one’s promotion into a higher salary bracket.) The same holds true in Canada and, to the best of my knowledge, in all European countries: Grants do not top up a researcher’s salary—the money is for research expenditures only.

The situation is slightly differently in the U.S., where research grants typically contain a salary component for the principal investigator(s). This component is for an additional 2-3 months of salary during the summer, which arises out of the historical accident that American academics are only employed for 9 months a year, and that they can seek other employment during the remaining 2-3 months. Grants provide one source of “employment”, but the salary could equally be provided by additional teaching during the summer.

In the U.S., unlike elsewhere, there is a personal financial incentive for researchers to apply for research grants. But before we can conclude that summer salaries may affect the integrity of academic research, we must ask the next question concerning the role of funding.

What’s the money for?

It is self-evident but often forgotten that a vested interest can arise only if there is, well, a vested interest.  A coal mine makes money by digging up coal. So they must care about the existence of a market for coal, because without that market they would be out of business. The same applies to oil companies, iron ore conglomerates, and the local bakery. No demand for oil, ore, or cinnamon buns—and the business goes under.

It follows that if a coal company sponsors research into the health effects of mercury—a major pollutant from coal-fired power stations—then it takes little imagination to identify the desired outcome of the research. Would the funding be renewed if the research delivered the wrong outcome?

Now consider a scientist who seeks funding from a public granting agency to identify the variables that cause ill health from exposure to mercury. Is that scientist’s career or funding contingent on the existence of a link between living downwind of a coal-fired power plant and mercury poisoning?

No.

If that link did not exist, nothing would change. Research would be conducted, published, and a final report would be submitted to the granting agency. Future funding would not hinge on the specific result, only on academic productivity.

The idea that climate-change research is somehow corrupted by scientists who are seeking a renewal of grant funding is tantamount to claiming that lung-cancer research is corrupted because medical researchers wanted to have their grants renewed. There are few people outside the tobacco industry who would accept that possibility.

A final question we need to ask concerns the process by which funding is awarded.

How is the money awarded?

Competitive research grants are awarded on the basis of merit—not on the basis of a commercial interest on the part of the granting agency, and not on the basis of a commercial interest on the part of the researcher. Grants are awarded by expert panels on the basis of recommendations during peer review. Appointments to the panel are made on the basis of expertise.

That means that grants are provided to examine the effects of mercury exposure—but they do not prescribe that coal-fired power plants must be the cause. Grants are provided to fund research into atmospheric processes—but they are not tied to a specific outcome, such as the identification of CO2 as the cause of global warming.

To illustrate, my own grants were awarded to fund a variety of research into people’s thinking and reasoning, but in no case was the outcome prescribed. Indeed, all the grants that I have written and submitted as senior investigator contained research ideas that I developed on my own (or with collaborators) and without any input from the funding agency ahead of time.

This point is sufficiently important to bear repetition: Grants are awarded on the basis of merit, for pursuit of a good idea, whatever that idea may be (subject only to broad directions set by the Research Councils). Public funding of scientists thus goes a long way towards ensuring their independence to pursue ideas based on merit, and not for commercial reasons.

Limitations and qualifications

The public-funding process just described is not perfect, and there are ways in which politics or policies may intrude in funding decisions: For example, a funding agency may stipulate “priority areas” or they may launch specific “calls for proposals” that are geared towards specific projects. Researchers may adjust their grants on that basis, or they may shy away from controversial topics that they think are less likely to get funded. Conversely, scientists may be reluctant to give up on an idea because they have sunk a lot of work and time into its existence: Once a paradigm has been established, it doesn’t disappear overnight—it takes time for a new idea to gather a foothold.

All those faults must be acknowledged, examined, and managed. But none must detract from the fact that public funding of scientists is the virtual antithesis of “cash for comments”.

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64 Comments


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