Trust is a coin of the realm

In accepting industry funding, universities must be transparent if they are to sustain public faith in the independence of research

October 29, 2015
British pound coin on gold leaf

According to Milton Friedman, the late American economist, there are four ways to spend money.

You can spend your own money on yourself. Then you make damn sure you get your money’s worth. You can spend your own money on someone else. When you do that, you’re not so careful about what you buy, but you try to keep down the cost. You can spend someone else’s money on yourself – and then you have a particularly “good lunch”. Or you can spend somebody else’s money on somebody else, in which case you aren’t particularly bothered about what you get or the price.

His argument was that this fourth approach explained inefficiency in public spending.

Opponents of free market economics, not to mention people who like to give nice gifts at Christmas, will find plenty to take issue with in Friedman’s analysis.

But let’s apply it to the topic explored in our cover story, on academic research being commissioned and paid for by the very industries that are the subject of that research.

Whatever those involved might protest, observers could easily be forgiven for seeing this arrangement as falling into Friedman’s first category: industry spending its own money on itself.

And this poses a problem: how to ensure both that researchers’ independence remains sacrosanct, and that the world believes in that independence, whatever the ultimate output.

We know that academia commands public trust; according to the Edelman Trust Barometer, a survey of 33,000 people in 27 countries, academics are the most credible of any professional group.

But every time there is a scandal (a rare occurrence, it must be said) or a case with enough grey areas to give the impression of a lack of transparency, if not wrongdoing, that trust is undermined.

Look at the numbers and there’s little evidence that industry-funded research is on the increase (more’s the pity, some would say).

But there is a general concern about the growing influence of private funding in higher education, whether from paying “customers” (students) or philanthropy (as discussed in our recent feature on “philanthocapitalism”).

In terms of research, this week’s cover story discusses examples on different points in the spectrum – including New York Times coverage of Coca-Cola’s funding for scientific research and advocacy to counter claims that its drinks cause obesity (an issue that was back to the fore last week as a result of the delayed publication of a UK report recommending a sugar tax to tackle childhood obesity).

The issues can exist in subtler form, too – we’ve previously reported on concerns that universities have been tainted by what Robert Proctor, professor of the history of science at Stanford University, calls “agnotology” – where researchers are used as a tool to keep doubt alive in areas where there really is no doubt, such as the harm caused by tobacco.

Ninety-nine point nine times out of 100, universities and researchers are neither corrupt nor primarily self-interested, and the survey data show that the public understands that. But trust can easily be undermined, and academia easily damaged by the wrong sort of interaction or through lack of transparency, no matter what a funder is or is not getting for its money.

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