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Scientific Research Funding

An Interview with Sheldon Krimsky

Sheldon Krimsky is professor of Urban & Environmental Policy & Planning at Tufts University. His research has focused on the linkages between science and technology, ethics and values, and public policy. He is the author of seven books and has published over 130 essays and reviews that have appeared in books and journals.
Krimsky serves on the Board of Directors for the Council for Responsible Genetics and as a Fellow of the Hastings Center on Bioethics. He holds a M.S. in physics from Purdue University and a M.A. and Ph.D. in philosophy from Boston University.

Can you start by just briefly tracing the history of funding for universities since the end of the cold war? How have universities generally received funds in the past? Where does a majority of research funding come from?

Universities receive the majority of their funds from the federal government. This was the case during the cold war, and has continued since it ended. However, more of the research money that universities receive is coming from private industry than ever before. In 1970 it was 2.7%; today it averages to about 7% and in some universities has reached as high as 35%.

How has the connection between the private industry and universities grown and strengthened in the last 20 years? What led to these changes?

Most of what I have focused my research on in scientific ethics are the ties that have grown between private industry and academia. The connection has strengthened beyond simply private industry supplying more money to academia. The connection has also grown because more and more professors are working in private industry. This means that professors are increasingly connected financially to the success of their research. There is a growing link not only in the influence that industry has over funding of research in academia, but also the way in which professors participate in industry.

The peer review process is in place to ensure that scientific advances are published, can be replicated and are scientifically "true." What are some of the shortcomings of the peer review process? What kind of effect has the increased connection between industry and academia had on the peer review system? What are the other choices if the peer review system does not work properly?

It is clear that the peer review process is far from perfect. That being said, it works fairly well in awarding grants to universities from the federal government. However, it awards most of the money to the research universities who are already the wealthiest ones in the country. There has been an attempt recently at changing that process to make it more inclusive and reach out to more schools. The government now has specifically committed to give money to regions and schools that have traditionally received fewer grants or dollars. These changes are steps in the right direction, but if more is not done to promote equitable ways to allocate research funds, additional problems will begin to arise. If universities and researchers feel they are unable to receive money from the federal government, they will turn more often to private industry for research dollars. This is dangerous because private industry ties to academia are much more susceptible to corruption and undue influence than governmental ones.

There are people who believe that the government should not fund the sciences outside of what is the absolute minimum for national security, and that instead it should be left to private industry to fund and conduct research. What role do you think the government should play in conducting and funding scientific research?

I completely understand what that libertarian stance is and why people believe that and what that philosophy is. I think that there is some merit to that idea in a lot of areas of governance, especially in an ideal world. However, I think that in reality, were the federal government not to fund science, we would be at least a decade behind where we are now scientifically and technologically. It is very important for the government to stay involved in research because that also ensures that research is not done only for profit. Were industry to be totally in charge of funding research in the United States, then the number one motive behind making new discoveries would be money, not knowledge or pure science.

In the United States now, there are scientifically researched cures for impotence and hair loss, as well as cures that have completely eliminated many infectious diseases that are still prevalent in other parts of the world. Do you think that this is an appropriate use of scientific dollars? Or should the United States scientific community be doing more to address the plight of people still suffering from curable infectious diseases like tuberculosis?

Well, we do not have a cure for hair loss. The ‘cures' we have for hair loss are not really cures and are almost entirely just hype, with the exception of transplants, which provide some cosmetic response. However, that being said it is true that the US has left some of the rest of the world behind. I think, though, that researchers are not necessarily to blame for that, especially in academia, because most of what they conduct is basic research. I think that most of the blame for the disparity in priorities in health care research lies with US policy in foreign affairs and not with the scientific community. This country places more priority on diseases of the middle class and wealthy peoples of the industrial world who can pay for treatment and drugs. In addition to that, though, I think that it is very important for the scientific community throughout the world to work together in order to stop deaths from infectious diseases that can be prevented like tuberculosis. But that responsibility cannot lie simply with researchers in the United States; it must come from worldwide cooperation to eradicate diseases, much the same way that smallpox was eliminated by a long-term cooperative effort throughout the world.

There was a report in the New York Times last month suggesting that the source of scientific funding, especially within the pharmaceutical community, is having a greater impact on the results of the funding. Does that pose a significant threat to the quality of scientific research in the United States? How are industries able to manipulate or influence the results of a certain experiment?

When you look at the scientific method and the peer review process, the easiest way to manipulate results is in how you ask questions and who asks questions. If you conduct a study and at the end say drug ‘X' is successful in 15% of cases, a pharmaceutical company can turn around and say that the criteria for success is only 10%. Then they can say that a drug that was only 15% successful is more effective than what was anticipated in clinical trials. Increasingly, pharmaceutical companies are funding studies, designing protocols, influencing what gets published, educating physicians, supporting journals, and marketing directly to consumers.

What can be done to best allow professors, industry and universities to create better collaboration while also avoiding the problems of conflicts of interest?

The first and most important thing that needs to be done is that conflicts of interest need to be declared. Scientific journals are starting to require that researchers submitting work declare any conflict of interest before they will publish work. However, there are no uniform rules in place to regulate or enforce a standard for avoiding conflicts of interest. Currently, all of the guidelines adopted by journals, government, and universities have no teeth behind them. We need to establish a much more concrete set of regulations on conflicts of interest that are followed throughout the research community.

Is it necessary to adopt an official ‘scientific code of conduct' in order to ensure that basic research and applied research can be done in a more efficient and also highly ethical ways? Does this code of conduct need to be explicit, or can it just be an unspoken agreement that researchers abide by?

I believe there should be a uniform code of conduct for conflict of interest among academic scientists that addresses transparency, as well as prevention of certain conflicts, when a sensitive trust relationship between the scientist and society is broken or when the appearance of financial interests damages the integrity.

Submitted by: Eric Buescher, fall 2003 intern