don’t follow the money

The latest issue of Academe, the AAUP’s magazine, features several articles on corporate and other “suspect” funding, under the title “The Conflicted University.” The articles are varied, and I don’t intend a critique of any particular one. But the overall causal logic is simple–too simple. The claim is that corporate funding (and also nonprofit corporate-oriented funding) necessarily corrupts the research it funds.

This concept of “dirty money” is starkest in Allan Brandt’s article about tobacco money:

There is no evidence whatsoever that institutions that have taken steps to prohibit tobacco funding have had any difficulty distinguishing between  a “rogue” industry and industry-academy relationships that support the larger goals of knowledge acquisition and human betterment. (27)

I cannot imagine a standard that would draw this line reliably. It is reasonable to think that all corporate money is tainted; and, indeed, that since the State is the “executive committee of the ruling class,” government money, too, is tainted — at least with respect to certain forms of knowledge production and information dissemination. There are strong, reasonable theoretical approaches in which money itself is problematic; hence to differentiate among monies based on their sources strikes me as a futile and even counterprodutive exercise.

Consider, even, the sources of the major foundation funds: union-busting industry (Ford, Sloan); robber barons (MacArthur, Carnegie); big oil (Pew). Ought all of these be off-limits because of their tainted histories?

A number of years ago, I was involved in a faculty effort to block funding from the right-wing Pope foundation for a “Western Thought” curriculum. We successfully kept the funding from taking place, based in large part on UNC’s then-new policy on gifts affecting the curriculum. Within our group, though, there were two points of view. One group thought the money was tainted; we should never take money from foundations like Pope, given their long-standing hostility to UNC practices and curricula. The other point of view–including me–thought that we needed strong policies as to how money was to be accepted in order to insure that the curriculum remains the product of the faculty, not for sale to the highest bidder.

In short, I am convinced that the conflict-of-interest rubric is a losing battle for two reasons. One is that the line between “good” and “bad” money is impossible to draw clearly. The other is that the causal claim of funding => results is not necessarily true; given appropriate safeguards, universities and faculty ought to be open to accepting support for their missions from all comers. Here are some of my thoughts as to what these safeguards ought to be. I recognize that many of these will seem utopian or like deal-killers to potential funders, and of course that my list is likely incomplete–additions welcome!

  1. No agreements with any funders that restrict analysis or publication of results;
  2. No agreements that specify the content of claims or findings, or set a priori expectations for evaluations of these results;
  3. A long time horizon between a funder’s decision to withdraw funding and the actual end of the funding, in order to reduce the potential negative impacts of ending funding;
  4. All funding should pay substantial, unrestricted F&A to the university, and the university should in turn budget these funds as a buffer/firewall between funders’ short-term whims and the long-term interests of the university’s teaching and research;
  5. All programs funded should be subject to academic/scientific review separate from the funder’s approval process.

Author: andrewperrin

University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

2 thoughts on “don’t follow the money”

  1. I’m a bit more critical of funding sources, increasingly private foundations are setting the research agendas for social scientific research, and with the decline in public funds it creates a very uneven playing field to counteract the visions of these agencies for the direction of our inquiries. While we can point to some foundations which have depoliticized themselves, many of these are overtly or covertly political. And, they seek to fund regular researchers and programs in order to garner status for their hand picked “public intellectuals”. Normal scholars get 100K for altering their research agendas, while coddled ideologues get $2.5 million to do whatever they want. If green is good, then the good ideologue with a $500k grant dominates the young scholar who got a $25k NSF. That ain’t right.

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