Raising a Glass for Privately-Funded Research

Tuesday, August 01, 2017

Jeff Jacoby makes a point you rarely see these days: "Research Isn't Tainted Just Because Industry Picks Up the Tab." Jacoby's point of departure is a new study about the health benefits of moderate drinking, which is largely funded by (gasp!) five major manufacturers of alcoholic beverages:

[I]s there any good reason for industry funding to be inherently suspect?
Image courtesy of Pixabay.
There is no indication that the corporate donors will have any involvement in the design or conduct of the study. The project's principal investigator, Harvard Medical School Professor Kenneth Mukamal, told the Times he hadn't even known about the companies' backing. "This isn't anything other than a good old-fashioned NIH trial," he said. "We have had literally no contact with anyone in the alcohol industry in the planning of this." Gemma Hart, an Anheuser-Busch vice president, concurs: "We have no role in the study. We will learn the outcome of the study when everybody else does."

Of course it is wise to be wary of conflicts of interest; when corruption in research is discovered, it should be publicized and penalized. But "industry" and "corrupt" are not remotely synonymous. Business is indispensable to scientific exploration and employment. It is no more logical to automatically distrust research funded by industry than to distrust research funded by government, advocacy groups, or opinionated philanthropists. Research is expensive and someone has to pay for it. Chase away a major source of scientific funding, and the result will be less research. [format edits, bold added]
I agree with Jacoby, although, I would have liked him to mention the following: When a certain agency with the power of coercion -- namely, the government -- both funds science and stands to gain more power if results can be made to justify (or appear to justify) a given policy position, there is a built-in reason to be suspicious that there is a conflict of interest. Most in the media not only automatically suspect business of being an untrustworthy backer of science; they turn a blind eye to this other possibility if they are aware of it at all.

-- CAV


Dinwar said...

This is one reason I detest the current Liberal demands that we "support science", including the various marches and advocates like Tyson and Nye: They equate science with government funding, pure and simple. Many of the scientists I have spoken with that supported or participated in the marches were actively hostile to the notion of getting funding from anywhere but the federal government. I have been accused of being anti-science--by scientists!!--for pointing out the fact that universities who do not accept federal grants have more time and money to devote to research.

A large part of the reason why is that our culture indoctrinates scientists that only government-funded research is valid or worthwhile. I remember a few discussions in college that amounted to me being told that either the NSF funds it, a group specific to your field (GSA, AMA, or some similar group) funds it, or the research is garbage. Grad school is even worse, as many graduate programs amount to little more than "Here's how to write grant proposals".

It has always struck me as absurd that ostensibly intelligent people accept the fallacious notion that one can evaluate research by looking only at the funding. It's an application of the ad hom fallacy: don't attack the research, attack the financing! Worse, the more we allow this sort of nonsense the more it ingrains into the heads of the next generation the idea that the only valid science is government-funded science.

True advocacy of science must focus on the research itself, and sadly that is lacking. Scientists have allowed themselves to be collared and tamed, and to become just another special interest group that brings out the votes in November. It's truly pathetic.

Gus Van Horn said...


This (and a comment along the lines of "leaving the handicapped to the emrcy of charity" I ran into yesterday) is an example of a deeply-ingrained suspicion of self-interest in our culture. The government is somehow above this supposed problem despite being staffed by human beings.