Tuesday, 30 September 2014

One-sided scepticism: research funding edition

It seems the University of Canterbury has been discussing some pretty comprehensive restrictions on research funding.

The Herald reports:
Research funding from the dairying and soft drink industries could be declined on ethical grounds under proposals being worked through by the University of Canterbury.
The university is in the midst of a wide-ranging debate about ethical research funding - who academics should and shouldn't accept money from, and for what research purpose.
Currently, research funding from the tobacco and armaments industries could be declined.
Some academics have argued that should extend to certain industry-funded alcohol, gambling, dairying, mining and soft drink research.
Others believed there should be no prohibition and that the acceptance of funding should be left to individual moral judgements.
Suppose that you're a researcher whose work could draw industry support. You could either solicit that funding quietly, outside of the University's auspices, and draw the money as income for work you do in your spare time, or you could route that funding through the University's Research and Consultancy office.

In the former case, you do not have access to University resources for the work, but nobody really monitors whether you're using your computer, library access, or office time for consulting work. If there's overlap between your research work and your consulting work, it would be impossible to separate anyway. You can charge higher fees because you have no overhead loadings, you have no hassles from ridiculous University rules around how you can spend your earned funds, and nobody pays any attention because you haven't stuck your head up to be shot at.

In the latter case, you do have official access to the University stuff. That access comes with strings. Some of those strings are desirable. It is always better to be upfront and honest about one's funding arrangements. Where there is substantial overlap between funded work and your research work, it seems fair that the University be able to recoup some of that in overheads, even if that halves the amount you might get out of any funded work because of the overhead burden. And, that your work is run through the University means that it is subject to investigation by the University should you engage in dodgy research. That threat of sanction both makes your work more credible and reduces potential reputational risk to the University if roguish academics do naughty things in their spare time. On the downside, you lose a pile of the money in overheads and the University makes it almost impossible to spend any of the money coming in; it's perhaps purely coincidental that unspent money gets swept into the consolidated account at year-end.

When the Department of Economics was facing horrible financial times last year, I sought industry funding for some of my position. I had been doing work on alcohol policy as part of what I considered to be "critic and conscience" duties at the University; I no longer believed that I could spend much time on that work at the University without its being funded.

Other than a pretty small research budget, I got nothing out of it but administrative headaches from the University. The University got a fair bit of money out of it, between salary recovery and a very large administrative overhead charge. We built a ton of academic freedom into the contract, with everything disclosed on the blog. Well, I didn't put dollar figures on it because those would be commercially sensitive. But they covered a fifth of my time plus very substantial overheads with the money going to the University; you figure it out.

Where funding routes through the University, we have the greatest possible ethical safeguards on any undertaken research. Dodginess on a minor consultancy project could put your whole tenured position at risk. So who'd try it? Research misconduct is really really serious.

And so it's just bizarre that parts of the University would wish to block some categories of industry funding rather than simply insist on that all consulting work route through the University, that all work is subject to University guidelines on research and misconduct, and that all funding sources are disclosed.

The Herald called me for comment on the discussions at Canterbury. I have not been part of those discussions, but I know a bit of the background. I was briefly quoted.
Professor Sally Casswell, a Massey University public health researcher with a particular focus on alcohol, said she strongly believed research funding should not be accepted from the alcohol industry.
Such funding was an attempt by the industry to position itself as a partner in policy research, Professor Casswell said, but only industry-friendly policies were supported.
"When universities take money, they are being co-opted into this scenario ... it gives [the alcohol industry] an aura of respectability."
However, Dr Eric Crampton, head of research at the NZ Initiative think-tank, said industry-funded research could be extremely valuable, so long as funding arrangements were disclosed and unethical behaviour could be censured.
Dr Crampton previously worked at the University of Canterbury's economics department and was frequently critical of research on the societal harm from alcohol.
He maintains an adjunct senior fellow position with the department.
One-fifth of his university position was funded through a grant from the Brewers Association of Australia and New Zealand, he said, "and everything that I did was totally up for anybody to look at or comment on, or censure me if I was behaving badly".
"It is distortionary to automatically believe that industry funding is bad and evil and that government money comes with no strings and no agenda."
I'll be a bit more thorough here.

The University's job is to ensure its researchers always behave with the utmost of integrity, both in research conduct and in disclosure of funding. Disclosure is also important.

All funding comes with risk of strings. Had I stayed with the University, and had I produced three years of research saying that alcohol was just terrible, maybe the Brewers' Association wouldn't have wanted to renew the contract with the University even if that research were sound. But that would have been between them and the University. The best way to ensure independence is through longer term contracts and by running the contracts through the University such that the researcher's income or job tenure doesn't depend on keeping the grant provider happy with the findings. Again, I was on a three-year contract with a fair bit of freedom in what projects I thought worth pursuing. People in public health areas reliant on funding from the Ministry, from Health Research Council grants, or from other NGO granting agencies, must keep their funders happy on a project-by-project basis lest the next one not be granted. Consider the incentives under both types of set-up.

One potential concern, though of course I could not know for certain, among those in the Health Sciences group at Canterbury, might have been that the relationship between the Economics Department and the alcohol industry, through me, might undermine the relationship between the University of Canterbury and the health sector. I expect that such a concern, were there such a concern, speaks worse of both the funders and the fundees in that sector. So long as the funding relationship is disclosed, and so long as the University maintains robust processes for disciplining research misconduct, nobody in any other part of the University should worry about how other parts are funded.

If one group in the University fears that their relationship with their funders will be damaged because of the funding arrangements elsewhere in the University, that constitutes a violation of academic freedom in and of itself. If a funding group is sufficiently powerful that its fundees fear for the relationship because of things going on elsewhere in the University, the University might well wish to examine what on earth is going on between that group and its funders. Personally, if the Brewers had ever suggested that they'd have boosted its grant to the University if the University put a thumb on anything going on elsewhere, or that they'd have cut it were the Health researchers to keep getting MoH grants, I'd have told them to get stuffed and immediately disclosed to the Associate Vice Chancellor for Research.

Finally, the kind of attitude that says that it's a-ok to accept government health grants but always evil to accept industry funding is fundamentally antithetical to academic freedom. It's one-sided scepticism again. Governments, and its particular bureaus and funding agencies, have their own agendas.

Those who would bar all but politically correct funding sources doom academic inquiry. Universities with no connections outside of the University are ivory towers. Those only with research and funding connections to politically correct government sources are worse than that: they're ivory leaning  towers.

It simply may be getting to be too difficult for industry to bother trying for engagements with academia when substantial parts of the Universities will work to undermine those arrangements simply because of the funding source.

I continue to be amazed that a University that has had need to seek so much bailout money from the government would countenance blocking legitimate research funding sources.


  1. I agree with you Eric - provided the arrangements are transparent and open, its difficult to see the problem. I know in some other universities, however, that there is great secrecy over some out-side party funding arrangements - and I wonder how universities can enter them with a clear conscience. Still if Canterbury does not want outside funding that is their problem I guess, it will just go somewhere else. I thought the larger issue in your post was the rake-off being collected by the bureaucracy.

  2. Pretty much agree with everything you have written here except the last sentence. I don't believe you are actually amazed any more!

  3. I think concerns that any single researcher can undermine a university's reputation are largely misplaced -- most people understand that academics do not represent institutions.

    However, there is a risk of "venue shopping" with industry funded research;

  4. Ok, Richard. Go through the list of folks that the Ministry of Health gives money to on alcohol research. Is it a wide variety of viewpoints and methods? Or do they keep going back to the same lot who will tell them just how evil alcohol is, every time?

    The solution is to allow both but require that everything be disclosed.

  5. I worry sometimes that NZ is too small to be really professional, with a tendency to play the man and not the ball; I think I remember, back during the alcohol debate, a comment along the lines of, "Now, Dr. Crampton is not a psychiatrist ..." I'm not sure whether this is because the country is so small that it gets folksy, or because we don't have enough people with the academic dedication (or calibre) to engage on the level of the argument. Large fish in small ponds can get lazy.