Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Would you believe government injects politics into science?

Government is an institution driven by pork-barrel politics and ideological battles, so it should come as no surprise that taxpayer-funded science can be every bit as much a political football as taxpayer-funded art, bridges to nowhere, or multi-billion-dollar payouts to well-connected banks. Indeed, The Chilling Effect: How Do Researchers React to Conflict, a recent paper by Joanna Kempner, a Rutgers University sociologist, finds that high-profile debates over the propriety of research topics, even when they don't ultimately affect funding, can cause researchers to self-censor the wording of grants and even to drop entire topics of inquiry.

Government funding of research is often touted as a means for keeping science free of profit-driven bias or favoritism toward a private funding body. All too often, though, the biases and debates that engulf institutions subject to regular elections and fueled by tax money go unconsidered.

In particular, controversies can ensue when people object to their taxes going to fund ideas and projects they find offensive or immoral. We've seen this happen in the past with provocative art and hotly debated areas of medicine, such as abortion; it stands to reason that similar battles would erupt over scientific research.

Kempner emphasizes that most attempts to study the impact of politics on science have examined outright suppression of research by government agencies. In this case, she was interested in finding out what would cause scientists themselves to retreat from areas of inquiry. She points out:

[M]any scientists self-censor rather than publish findings contrary to disciplinary or ideological boundaries. They may avoid controversial areas of research altogether, rather than face burdensome regulatory requirements. Some advocacy groups may also intimidate scientists. Animal rights activists, for example, have successfully dissuaded some scientists from using certain kinds of animal models in research.

For this study, she examined whether political controversy could have the same muzzling effect as regulatory hurdles and intimidation. She started with a proposed 2004 amendment to a funding bill for the National Institutes of Health that would rescind the funding for grants primarily concerned with sexual behavior. The NIH successfully defended the grants against the congressional challenge, and funding remained unchanged.

But there was fallout from the controversy. Responses among scientists to the attempted cut-off of federal funding for provocative research topics have implications for whether research continues in some areas and how that research is done.

About half of the scientists interviewed and/or surveyed reported that they now remove “red flag” words (for example, “AIDS” and “homosexual”) from the titles and abstracts of their grant applications. About one-fourth of the respondents no longer included controversial topics (for example, “abortion” and “emergency contraception”) in their research agendas, and four researchers had made major career changes as a result of the controversy. Finally, about 10% of respondents said that their experience had strengthened their commitment to see their research completed and its results published although even many of these scientists also engaged in some self-censorship.

The most common response is to game the system by simply rewording proposals in less-provocative ways. Clearly, though, some research isn't being pursued at all for fear of political battles. The report found, "[r]esearch topics avoided as a result of the controversy included: the sexual health and/or orientation of adolescents; abortion; emergency contraception; condom use; anal sex; childhood sexual abuse; homosexuality; and the use of various harm reduction strategies."

In an amazing example of institutional inertia, the most logical response seems to have been automatically ruled out by many scientists who "explained that, in general, they preferred to submit an NIH grant that they believed was politically viable (an act that might require self-censoring) rather than to seek alternative funding from a nongovernmental source."

That stubborn unwillingness to try something new is, perhaps, hardest to understand. The best way to escape political battles, it would seem, is to escape political institutions by looking for funding from sources friendly to a preferred line of inquiry.

Indeed, while the British Medical Journal found, just a few years ago, that "government or public funding" was behind 60% of highly ranked clinical medicine articles published between 1994 and 2003, that ratio has been moving in the direction of private funding. Importantly, "65 of the 77 most-cited randomized, controlled trials (considered the gold standard of research) received funding from industry with the proportion increasing over time. Eighteen of the 32 most-cited trials published after 1999 were funded by industry, with no other sources of funding listed."

Admittedly, the research in the BMJ study isn't entirely comparable to the NIH research grants, but it's clear that nongovernmental funding is not only available for research, it's growing in importance and seems to have the greatest impact.

Oh, and the quality of industry-supported research is often better than other research, according to a report in the International Journal of Obesity. Perhaps, we can speculate, because less energy is wasted in battles and gaming the system.

So it should be a simple step for researchers who want to do science rather than play politics to look for willing sources of support rather than try to sneak grant proposals through under the radar or drop whole areas of research. Why the resistance?

Governments will always be politically charged institutions, forever debating every dollar spent and each project subsidized. Researchers will have to either learn to seek support elsewhere, or else grow accustomed to in-fighting and self-censorship.

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Blogger JoeFromSidney said...

In my book SCIENCE FUNDING: POLITICS AND PORKBARREL, Transaction Publishers, 1992, I document the destructive effect Federal funding has had on the American scientific enterprise, and the way it influences scientists to shape their research to fit the funding. We desperately need alternatives, but once the Feds enter a field, they drive out the alternatives.

November 20, 2008 12:58 PM  

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