Posted tagged ‘funding’

Who should be allowed to dictate what research is carried out?

September 2, 2010

Here is an interesting question. If someone gives you money to do research, to what extent do you and they expect to be able to dictate what direction the research goes in, and who owns the results?

When I was doing my PhD it was quite straightforward – I got some money from a CASE award and any publications had to be run past the company first, to ensure they did not want to patent the results. If they didn’t patent the results, the university could choose to do so if it wished. In any case nothing I personally discovered was of any interest to the company or even for the university to patent, so I just got two papers and one thesis out of it. Possibly the company were disappointed but it is impossible to ask them as they now no longer exist. Basically I got just over half of my funding from them, and they had first dibs on my research.

If an academic researcher is given a grant award by an government agency they get it for a specific project, and they have to at least try to do that project with the money they get. There are usually a few projects running for which there is no official funding, and these are sidelines which the researcher personally finds interesting but can’t convince anyone else of, or are at too early a stage to be able to do so. These will be funded by nonspecific grants or money from the university, or simply by using bits of time/resources not required by the formally funded projects. So in that respect academics are basically bound to do what the grant-awarding agency has awarded the grant for, otherwise they won’t get any more cash from that source. Grant proposals are assessed by peer-review (more on that some other time!) and decisions made on the basis of priority and past reputation of the applicant (in some cases). So the decision could be said to be made by the community or by the government of the day and its determining policies (feel free to argue this point!).

In industry, of course, no-one expects that they can just go and work on something “because I find it interesting” – time must be spent on potentially profitable projects for the company who is employing you. Some companies allow more leeway than others in this respect, and probably those with the most leeway have the longest-term view of research. But a justification of some sort of is always needed. In this case, the company clearly owns the research and often employees contracts are such that the company may also have first claim to any inventions that the employee may make in his/her spare time too. We pay for your time, we own your results, we decide what direction those results will go in.

So what happens if the money comes from another source? This may be less likely but there are e.g. large charities that fund research, and there is also the American model of endowments. The likes of Craig Venter, Bill Gates, and a few other millionaires are fortunately interested enough in science to want to support it financially. But what do they expect to get for their money, and what is it fair to allow them to have?

 I ask this question because there have been a discussions about this recently in different places.

For example, (and I have not been able to verify this) it is claimed on Wikipedia and with a reference to a magazine, that the original project to sequence a human genome carried out at the Venter Institute was intended to be an average of several people’s DNA, but that part way through, Venter intervened and substituted his own DNA alone. If this is true, did he really have the right to do this simply because he was funding it? It could be argued that an average would have provided more useful information for the world as a whole, and I am guessing that the researchers doing the science may have felt this way.  Or maybe they were just grateful to have received enough money to be able to finish the genome. From Venter’s perspective, he was paying for it and so if he wants his genome sequencing he can have it. That information is probably more useful to him personally than a more generic solution. Apparently he has changed his lifestyle as a result of several disease markers that showed up in the sequenced DNA. That could have been an investment that prolongs his life.

More recently, I have been speaking with friends at the Adolphe Merkle Institute (AMI) in Fribourg, Switzerland. The erstwhile Director recently left his post (see press release here). Differences of opinion in the definition of autonomy were cited as his reason for departure. Now if you read the blurb on the AMI homepage they claim to be an “independent center of competence” and to aim to “to stimulate innovation, foster industrial competitiveness and more generally, improve the quality of life”. The AMI was set up following a generous donation from Adolphe Merkel himself but researchers working there are also expected to acquire external funding e.g. from industrial partners and from the state. So to what extent do the foundation running the AMI have the right to dictate the direction that research carried out there will take? Without the initial donation, the institute would not exist and the researchers there would not be able to function. However the money for most of the ongoing projects being carried out by the researchers is provided by other sources. Add in to this the fact that most of the researchers there were top people recruited from elsewhere, and you cannot argue that they would not have been able to do their research at all if it were not for the institute. These top scientists did have jobs elsewhere and could easily get jobs somewhere else again with their reputations. But they did choose to go and work at the AMI, so you have to assume that they accepted the conditions, whatever those were. What happens when the direction that the endowment holder wants to go in is different from the direction of potential funders? Who decides which partners will be acceptable to the institute and where to go for funding? One of the reasons for employing an established scientist is usually because they have a good ability to attract new funding. If you have chosen to employ that person, can you then define where they will go for that funding?

This specific example has not yet shaken down but the question as a whole remains over who has the right to decide what research is done by any single scientist. What is clear is that it is not the scientists themselves as individuals who have that right, and nor should it be. Though most scientists will claim to be working for the greater good, and believe themselves to be doing so, allowing many individuals to make that choice for themselves is chaotic and may well result in wasted time and resources. So someone somewhere needs to have an overview. Each funding agency will have its own priorities and thus its own overview, again this is fair as they have to consider what the money they hold on behalf of their stakeholders is being used for (whether these stakeholders are the taxpayers or a private foundation or individual). But most academic researchers don’t get all their funding from one source, and this can introduce problems. What happens when funding sources conflict in their views and priorities? The individual researchers end up caught in the middle.

One thing I am sure of. I respect and admire the ex-Director of the AMI, Peter Schurtenberger. He is not the sort of person to quit a job half-done and he will have tried to resolve the situation. I believe that he was a victim of a conflict bigger than this single institute; put simply, too many people pulling on the purse strings of research and wanting a piece of it. Whether this sort of model can ever work I do not know. This sort of situation can only become more frequent as government cutbacks force researchers to seek funding from new sources with more of a vested interest in the outcomes.  

Chemistry World have also covered the topic of endowment funding recently here (unfortunately as I write this the content is member-only though I believe that older content becomes free). See what they have to say on the subject too.