16 July 2010

Privately funded science

David Calquhuon argued on his blog that science bloggers should never be paid. But at least one heading suggested a bigger issue is at stake:

Science and commerce don’t mix

I talked before about how science used to be practiced by the well-to-do, because it ensured analysis unfettered by vulgar concerns like worrying how you were going to feed yourself. This may is one of the reason that public funding has been so highly sought after: it is as close as most scientists can get to achieving the gentlemanly disinterest that is still idolized.


The research community in the U.S. is starving for money. State funding for institutions is drying up, probably for good, and federal funding may not return to old levels in a long time, if ever. Indeed, a story ran talking about how disappointed many researchers were with the current administration – not about funding, admittedly.

Where does that leave researchers?

As it happens, this was also the crux of a case (#6) for the National Ethics Bowl. Again, that it’s a case in a national competition suggests it isn’t clear cut.

Our ethics team came down on the side saying that private money could be acceptable for researchers, with qualifications, the most important one being the independence of the researchers to conduct and publish the results.

The Seed / Pepsi blow-out is an example of the tensions. Some bloggers left. Some stayed. Several talked about how very conflicted they were about what the right thing to do was.

With public money becoming less available, more and more researchers are going to be turning to some manner of private funding. As a profession and as individuals, we basic researchers have not given a lot of attention to this. Requirements to disclose potential conflicts of interest in conference abstracts, say, became common in the 1990s, if I remember right, which is fairly recent in the scheme of things. I am grateful to Mike the Mad Biologist for his discussion about this.

Maybe researchers are hoping that public funding rates will go back to old levels and the problem will go away. I think they’re going to be disappointed.

1 comment:

Mike Mike said...

Not to be pessimistic, but it seems to me that if commercial/industrial funding really becomes the most readily available source of funding, universities (as well as the next generation of scientists) will end up being okay with that. In part, this might be because those who refuse commercial funding will find it harder and harder to get jobs. How this will impact the quality science is hard to say without actually seeing it, though it has the potential to make it much, much worse. Part of me thinks it's like any other social change - people who "grew up" with the old way are going to resist it, and people who never knew differently will think it's normal and acceptable (if, perhaps, unfortunate.)

I'm hoping that won't need to happen, though.