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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
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
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.
by: Eric Buescher, fall 2003 intern