Pay to Learn…or Pay for Cover?

The New York Times ran a piece profiling three scientists engaged in different flavors of pesticide research.  There is nothing really surprising for those in the scientific community: they found a scientist who found the bending of his research by a company to be distasteful, another who gleefully embraces his corporate identity, and another who fought a company’s assertions about their product. What isn’t addressed in the piece, and what should really be the key to this whole issue, is what exactly was the goal of the company in sponsoring research?  The funny thing is that this remind GG of a tension with some undergraduate students.

What tension?  When you pay tens of thousands of dollars to a university, what are you paying for? Often the answer is that you are paying for an education, but you would be wrong in thinking that.  Why? Because when you pay for college, you are paying for access to an education; you yourself have to be an active participant in order to get that education.  In a sense it is like paying to get into Disneyland: you do not become happy or thrilled simply by paying, you only feel happy or thrilled should you actually participate in rides or shows within the park. So when students complain that they didn’t learn in a class, before damning the instructor, it is worth asking just what efforts they made.  Many university professors have stories of a student complaining of an exam that was unfair only to find that the student never broke open a textbook, examined online notes, or completed a homework.

How does this relate to corporate support of science?

Ideally corporations should be reaching out to academic scientists to really learn about their product or industry.  Does my product cause cancer? Does it really solve a problem?  Is it better than a competitor’s product? Is there a better implementation of my process? By spending money for such research, the companies are acquiring access: the scientists in question might have been highly unlikely to pursue these questions without support. But buying that access is not the same as buying the result, yet this is what it appears far too many companies think they are doing. The most obvious problem is the non-disclosure agreement; originally such things were in place to prevent an outside scientists from revealing a trade secret (publishing, say, the secret ingredients to Kentucky Fried Chicken). But now this tool is used as an all-purpose weapon to prevent the publication of anything negative about a product; even if a scientist is totally fair and above-board, her or his work can be stifled by these legal chains.

Ironically, corporations’ opponents further exacerbate the situation. For investigative reporters, the mantra “follow the money” has helped uncover shady dealings in politics, but it has been abused to the point that accepting money, no matter how transparently, is equivalent to guilt in covering up something. Thus a scientist who fairly and legitimately undertakes research with corporate money has his or her results labeled as biased regardless of the reality. In the end, this drives reputable scientists away from conducting research with corporate money–money that is generally not being replaced by grants from the government or non-corporate sources. Thus the bulk of the research that might get done may well skew towards scientists less questioning of the desires of their corporate sponsors, since they are going to get hammered from any opponents of the corporation regardless.

This activity as a whole reduces science to the same kind of intellectual divide that now pervades the public at large, where you are free to disregard what the other side says because you know they are lying.  (Even when they aren’t.)

Is there a way out?  Maybe.  For topics of broader interest (such as the bee-death studies highlighted by the Times), corporations could jointly fund research with non-corporate interests. Both sides would have access to the scientists and the science; neither side could block the publication of the research. Each side could see the suggestions the other side might make in adjusting the ongoing research to initial findings. This would require both sides to actually be most interested in the truth rather than simply empowering their preexisting world view. Now, wouldn’t that be refreshing?

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