In an earlier op-ed in this series, Dean Christian Brady argued that “Money is not evil … Money can be a tool or a weapon.”
Universities depend heavily on external funding to conduct research and extend knowledge.
However, there are concerns that such funding taints the positions of university researchers on major public policy issues, reinforced by news reports of financial influences on climate change debates and medical endorsements, and in popular culture (e.g., “The Fugitive” and “Thank You for Smoking”).
Universities have unique societal roles in the U.S. In addition to education,
universities are seen as the bastions of free enquiry least tainted by political or financial influences. A third key role of universities is in driving research applications, which has been part of American university culture since the creation of Land Grant universities in 1862, including Penn State.
The application of research is not limited to the Land Grants, and it’s surely no accident that major companies such as Microsoft, Facebook and Google were launched on or near university campuses.
Thus, in the U.S., we should have a particular interest in making sure that universities remain untainted by inappropriate influences — places where policy is driven by facts and reason.
So does the source of research funding unduly influence opinions of university researchers? Should some sources of external funding be banned from universities?
In my 39 years of firsthand engagement in externally funded university agricultural research in the U.S. and Australia, I haven’t seen any significant cases of bias. The kinds of policy statements made and opinions expressed by university employees are well within the ranges of those shared by researchers without private funding.
A dilemma faced by some research administrators is that you can be damned with or without external funds.
Accept them and you can be accused of bias. On the other hand, if the research is seen largely as a private benefit (e.g., working on genetically modified crops, which may be seen as of interest only to companies and farmers), the complaint is that public funds, even if unbiased, are supporting the private sector, which should pay its own way.
In my experience, differences in opinions on policy are driven more by researchers’ backgrounds than cash. The primary impact of external funding in a tight public funding environment is a minor influence on the topics researched.
Why? For anyone who wants to influence research outcomes — including even university administrators — university researchers are particularly frustrating.
The strong desire to pursue one’s own research interests, and a scientist’s training to be skeptical, tends to trump all other influences.
In addition, universities have established policies and practices to manage objectivity and freedom of expression whatever the funding source.
Accepting external funding will always be a challenge to the missions of a university, to fund applied research without influencing its conclusions.
Universities can and have managed this. External funds remain a key tool for good, supporting enquiry and public policy.