Traditionally, research at universities across the country has been financed through federally funded grants. And with more universities like GW trying to increase their standing in various research fields, the demand for federal money is at an all-time high. Many institutions are turning to alternative sources of funding, but the University should be aware of the risks that come with these options.
Non-defense research and development spending has remained fairly constant over the past few decades, but competition for federal funding has never been fiercer. Research grant applications submitted to the National Institutes of Health have doubled from 1997 to 2011. Universities have also increased the number of grant applications to federal agencies like the NIH indirectly through increases in the number of doctoral candidates and faculty members in research fields.
This has left faculty members in a constant battle for funding. One of the ways universities, including GW, are dealing with the problem of high competition is by turning to corporate funding. One of the University’s primary goals for its research department this academic year is to increase corporate agreements with faculty in the hopes that it will help continue to raise the University’s prominence and reputation as a major research player. But without proper and strategic protocol, this source of funding can come with significant potential problems that would compromise potential studies. To combat this, the University’s lawyers review contracts to ensure they explicitly outline the relationship between the professor and the corporation. But the University can do more. GW should implement policies and safeguards – like full disclosure of any and all conflicts of interest to prevent the compromising of studies and maintain impartiality – and then make those policies available to the public.
Corporate funding doesn’t have to inherently be harmful, and when faculty members are unable to get the funding that they need from the government, corporate money is better than none at all. However, scientific research should always only be conducted for the benefit of the general public. Given the track record of corporate funded science, skepticism and hesitation must be the default.
Corporations have a vested interest in creating the conditions that will give them the results they paid for, and that can compromise the validity of entire studies. This happened last December, when a study funded by the International Life Sciences Institute, which is composed of companies like Red Bull and Hershey’s, presented findings that lessened the negative effects of sugar intake. That’s what makes this issue even more complicated. Corporations are able to hide behind institutions with generic, noble-sounding names, meaning that simply disclosing where research funds are coming from isn’t good enough.
Industries such as tobacco, oil, food and pharmaceutical have long histories of manipulating science to deceive the public and protect their bottom lines, dating all the way to the early 20th century. In the 1920s, the gasoline industry started using leaded gasoline to increase profits while using pseudo science to claim that there were no adverse effects, leading to the deaths of more than 5,000 Americans prior to its ban in 1986. In another instance, major tobacco companies funded biological and epidemiological studies as recently as the 1990’s that would produce research that downplayed the adverse effects of secondhand smoke.
Corporations funding research today haven’t done much to inspire thoughts of change and reform either. Often times, when corporations approach universities to conduct research, faculty members are forced to sign non-disclosure agreements. These NDA’s make it impossible for the public to discern any potential biases or conflicts of interest, since the researcher isn’t allowed to disclose anything about the terms of the contract regarding their research. These contracts can also dictate everything from the materials that are allowed to be used to the kinds of specific research techniques. This is why the University should publicize every corporate grant they receive.
But these roadblocks are always expected when dealing with the private sector. Although it’s the unavoidable side effect to capitalism and privatization, the University must take action to combat it.
Leo Chalupa, the vice president for research, said while corporate deals help accelerate projects, officials often have to “protect” researchers from entering a contract that could exploit the faculty member so the company can profit. When using corporate money for research, universities like GW should create and publicize a set of standard, strict and clear guidelines to preserve scientific integrity. These guidelines should include full disclosure of any and all conflicts of interest and full public availability of findings and research techniques. Right now, this information is not accessible when searching through GW’s research resources online. Additionally, there should be emphasis on practices such as peer review, where researchers not involved in the study look over the study, and deterrents against misconduct. This would ensure impartiality and that the research is credible.
By implementing policies like these, GW can ensure the studies they release are as unbiased and factual as possible, fulfilling the true purpose of research universities. The furthering of science and academia in the name of bettering society must always be the priority for all faculty and universities. Corporations inherently have their own goals, and it’s dangerous to believe that they’ll ever align with those of the general public.
If GW feels like it needs to take corporate funds to fund their research, so be it. But we must remain aware that our quest for industry pedigree becomes invalid and harmful when we risk the corrosion of the scientific practices the public depends upon to keep findings impartial.
Naseem Othman, a freshman majoring in political science, is a Hatchet opinions writer.
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