Capitalism, Governments, and Research Ethics

Ouimet Canyon near Thunder BayWhen research is funded by capitalists, does this represent a contradiction ethically? What if research is funded by government money? Are researchers held hostage to the hands that fund them in terms of research objectivity? Are researchers swayed by a latent obligation to show results that support the funding source’s interests?

The historical degeneration of the meaning of “bribery”, from a “gift begged”, to the giving of money to corrupt a person in a position of trust, circumscribes discourse on paid-for research. And I’ll tell you why. It’s because gift-giving always carries the with it a sense of indebtedness, an obligation however unspoken, from the recipient to the donor. And in some cases, non-acceptance or non-compliance with the donor’s dormant expectations of reciprocity of some sort,  may have unwanted consequences.

An example:

Dr. Smith of the biology department of XYZ University, applies for, and receives,  a 1-year research grant of $227,000 from the Techbiof Corporation, a long-time donor to the university, to conduct studies on the retinal receptor cells of the eyes of Lunar Moths. Techbiof Corporation makes lithium batteries for costly single high-intensity headlamps that are specifically designed to be used by persons collecting insects at night. Dr. Smith’s hypothesis is that “The greater the intensity (candle power) of sustained light received on the retinas of Lunar Moths, the greater the attraction of the moths to the light.” Once Dr. Smith and his team had conducted their field trials and data entries over 12 months, they discovered that the exact opposite to his hypothesis had occurred, namely that only low intensity light shone at night attracts the largest number of moths. Dr. Smith et al had used another company’s variable-intensity headlamps in their field experiments to properly conduct the experiment and indirectly, to control for design bias. His findings were published shortly thereafter in a peer-reviewed international biology journal. The CEO of Techbiof Corporation then wrote a nasty letter to the Chair of the department, copied to the university President, demanding to know why Dr. Smith’s team had not used the headlamps made by his corporation. He threatened to cease all corporate donations to the university thereafter.

Whether funding is received from private industry, government research grants, NGO fundraising efforts, philanthropists, researchers themselves, or other sources, if there exists a contractual relationship with conditions applied, there will always be research duties and obligations, clearly stated or implied. Often these parameters are set early on at the ethics committee review, and later added onto at the grant acceptance stage. Private labs however, may not have such rigid guidelines, with internal funding at their doorstep.

 

Interferences in the research process can come in all forms: from board members, process ‘gatekeepers’, community opinion, professional advocacy groups, trade organizations, religious groups,  journalists/internet trolls, and political parties. Research that is seen as “risky”, or not in the public’s interest, may have to fight more vehemently to obtain funding. Environmental scans for proposed housing on rurban arable land, may be one example in which public protest often looms large, and researchers may have needs for anonymity during the assessment process.

Putting sufficient and necessary controls on the research process can be tricky. Capitalism does not suffer fools lightly, and where profiteering and research mingle, there can be trouble. Research donations that run counter to corporate interests may be a fool’s game, as it is counter-intuitive to support publicized results that “make the company look bad.” This raises the bar on compliance from within the lab. Controlling for complete research objectivity is offset by private industry pressures ‘to hear what they want to hear.’ And government research review boards should change their membership regularly, like how bank managers are moved around a lot, to protect against vested interests or opinions. Although final study papers are reviewed anonymously (blind copies) for grants and publication purposes, all references to the employer must also be removed. Perhaps even the town or city. No internet addresses or websites can appear anywhere along the application submission process for research grants. 

The research grant process generally, is phenomenal. It hasn’t been studied and acted upon enough to yet guarantee 100% objectivity throughout, and there is much we don’t know about how to protect the researcher and his/her data from ‘process prostitution.’ Of significance is of course, how well society and technology have emerged from over 100 years of diligence applied to grant-giving. We’ve done very well on the whole. But there are blips on the fair-mindedness screen from time to time, that remind us of bad results and bad communication and ‘bought’ researchers. You may recall recent news about herbicide and pesticide manufacturers’ court battles. What goes around comes around, and research and product application ethics, mixed with reasonably accurate public opinion, feed that merry-go-round. We have to resist temptation every step of the way.

“I can resist everything except temptation.” – Oscar Wilde

“In so far as you approach temptation to a man, you do him an injury; if he is overcome, you share his guilt.” – Dr. Samuel Johnson

“Few men have virtue to withstand the highest bidder.” – George Washington

 

 

 

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