Privately Funded Science is Flawed and Biased, Publicly Funded Isn’t?
“Follow the money” is a term that is commonly used to question research results. It’s widely believed that funding sources play a significant role in the results of research. Independent reviews have demonstrated that industry-funded research is significantly more likely to lead to results favouring the sponsor than similar research done by public teams, both in regard to nutritional research and clinical research of drugs (and virtually any other field). 
As reported in Science Daily, industry-funded research on drugs was significantly more likely to find results than government-funded public research of a similar design (85% vs 50%) and was significantly less likely to publish the results within 2 years of trial completion (32% vs 54%). If we go out on a limb and presume that the studies that were not published were negative findings, the success rate of industry-funded research drops to 27.2% and government-funded public research to 27%; very similar. Confounding variables being that drugs actually have a higher chance of success in phase III than in phase I or II, as many ineffective candidates are weeded out in these early phases, and according to this article, industry-funded research comprises far more phase III and phase IV trials. It is also not clear if government-funded research conducting phase I and II trials has happened after the success of industry-funded trials in these stages, and whether it is replicative in nature. If so, this would also skew the direct comparison, as replicative work would undoubtedly come with a higher chance of success than a first of its’ kind. It would take someone far more skilled than I in analyzing these statistics to account for both variables.
For simplicity's sake, if we were to accept that the variables cancel each other out, and once factoring for unpublished work, the 27% and 27.2% numbers are incredibly close. So, why is there such a perception of privately funded research corruption? Full-blown data fraud is far more common than is comfortable, the practice seeming to affect both public and private researchers. Withholding information may be a far more common practice in corporate-funded research, as evidenced by the rates of publication cited above, or several examples of when drug companies have withheld important information from both the public and regulators that have often had disastrous results, such as effective drugs with side effects obfuscated and even deaths directly associated to the use of approved drugs.[3-10]
If negative results and dangers associated with drugs are being obscured, the questions then become are the positive results corrupted by private corporations as well? If so, can we trust private research at all? If funding corrupts results, are public researchers utilizing grant funds impervious to corruption? Are public researchers susceptible to motivating factors which may bring their results into question, outside of financial gain?
Time Spent on Research
With all the money being spent on public research and the entire publication industry and peer review process, as detailed in the last section of this series, and despite all the issues presented thus far, at least our best scientists in the primes of their academic careers are spending most of their time working on their field, right? Unfortunately, this isn’t the case. In fact, one study, as reported in Times Higher Education estimated that professors spend less than 20% of their actual time on research, and as Inside Higher Ed reported, much of the time professors get to spend on their research is actually in their “leisure time”, and of their actual time spent on “research” as much as 1/5th of that entails writing grant applications to obtain funding. It is important to clarify that research could entail different work, for different Professors. For example, a Professor of a large department may spend 0% of their time on hands-on research, solely supervising their staff. Alternatively, a Professor of a small department with few employees may spend some of their time hands-on. The field of research, size of the team, and each Professor’s own desire likely contribute to this. Prefacing what is likely defined as “research”, this would leave less than 10 hours a week of actual “research time” when considering a 60-hour work week. Public researchers are currently fighting an uphill battle both on-time allocation to study their field, as compared to their private counterparts, and in terms of available funding.
An inability to obtain grant funds is a death sentence for scientists. Without funding, scientists cannot properly conduct research, and if they can’t conduct research, they can’t publish papers, leading to further diminished likelihood they will be awarded grants. It’s been argued that one of the greatest skills a scientist can develop is how to properly write grant applications. With the current state of public science being not so much who has the best ideas, but who can secure the most in grants, a competitive landscape that has seen the success of grant applications plummet from 40-50% in the 1970s to 8% as of 2013.
The scientists sitting on the grant committees seem to be just as susceptible to bias as I have insinuated the single-blind peer-review process, with prestigious institutions being granted their funding applications 65% more of the time on average and receiving 50% larger award sizes. This skew in grant awards is not justified by the statistics, with less-prestigious institutions producing 65% more publications and accruing a 35% higher citation impact per dollar of funding.[12,13]
With their funding on the line and funding being the key to their future, public researchers must navigate compromising their research in order to structure papers the way editors and referees want them presented, as a better publication record leads to more funding and promotions, while compromising their time resources to learn the skill of obtaining grant funding. This pressure from both sides can contribute to questionable decisions. In fact, a study published in Nature in 2005 which surveyed 3,247 publicly-funded US Researchers found that 15.5% admitted to altering design, methodology or results of their studies due to the pressure of an external funding source.
In another report from Nature on obtaining grant funds and publishing in high impact factor journals, the article noted, “These are common legitimate concerns, but how about this: a whopping 58% of scientists in the UK report said that they were aware of colleagues feeling tempted or under pressure to compromise on research integrity or standards. Asked whether they felt this way themselves, just 21% of scientists aged 35 or over said yes; strikingly, that figure shot up to one-third of those aged under 35.”
One contact of mine, from one of the top universities in the world, has privately admitted to me that his department has a “no negative publication” rule, undoubtedly in place to demonstrate the brilliance of their researchers. That brilliance, of course, or rather the illusion of it, is likely a strong motivating factor towards influencing both grant committees, editors and reviewers. What does a policy like this do for the pursuit of truth? Not much.
When Science is All About the Money, Scientists Must be Raking it in?
Despite so much of their time, mental energy, and focus being on practices that either directly, or indirectly, drive them towards increasing grant funding for their projects, and the likelihood of personal gains from career advancement, promotions and raises, academics are not raking it in. The life of academia, for those not fortunate enough to have their own personal funding source, is a long road of financial struggle in order to obtain a slim chance at a modest living.
There is significant variability in funds required for a Ph.D. candidate to live and conduct their research. In most large institutions, the Ph.D. candidates' tuition is covered by the graduate programs funding, and the candidate is provided with a stipend, or living allowance, typically in the range of $20 to $30 thousand per year. In some situations, a Ph.D. candidate may be responsible for all of their own expenses, from tuition to bringing in funding for their research, with no stipend given. This is less common, and most Professors will not take on a grad student under these circumstances, however, candidates may become desperate if they have not been accepted into more ideal programs. The Ph.D. candidates also conduct significant amounts of free work, often compared to “slave labour”, further increasing the profits and esteem of the research universities they are often going broke in order to attend. From The Economist,
“But universities have discovered that Ph.D. students are cheap, highly motivated and disposable labour. With more Ph.D. students they can do more research, and in some countries more teaching, with less money. A graduate assistant at Yale might earn $20,000 a year for nine months of teaching. The average pay of full professors in America was $109,000 in 2009 — higher than the average for judges and magistrates.”
Things must be brighter once an aspiring academic is awarded their Ph.D. and embarks on their career though, right? Years of grueling graduate education is just an investment in their future earnings, such as seen in many other professions like lawyers and medical doctors. Unfortunately, this isn’t quite the case. Aspiring academics deciding to pursue a post-doctoral position at an academic institution rather than searching for work in the private sector may resign to making less than their private counterparts, and bear the brunt of this loss in the first several years. Post-doctoral positions are basically mandatory prerequisites to gaining full-time tenured employment at an institution, and the wages of post docs are not indicative of their value, or years of education. From Science Mag:
“The financial sacrifice begins during the postdoc. As detailed in the new report, which uses National Science Foundation data to track the careers of thousands of people who earned Ph.D.s between 1980 and 2010, a typical postdoc in biomedicine lasts 4.5 years with an annual salary of about $45,000—as compared with the $75,000 or so paid as a median starting salary to Ph.D.s in industry.“
Perhaps the life of a post doc is simply akin to a medical resident; longer hours, harder work, lower pay, but the light is now shining at the end of the tunnel, so to speak? Again, this is unfortunately not the case. Post docs have a very low probability of gaining a tenured position or ever becoming a full professor. As noted in an article in Nature, “Of the more than 40,000 US postdocs in 2013, almost 4,000 had been so for more than 6 years.“ As Science Mag discussed, a majority of post doc researchers hope to eventually gain tenure, but only a minority ever realize this goal. I could not find any data on the percentage of post docs that eventually gain tenure, but Nature reports that roughly 10% of Ph.D. trainees ever gain a professorship, and more than one of my friends who hold professorships have stated they fear the percentage of postdocs gaining tenure has fallen below 20%. There are simply too many Ph.D. candidates and graduates, and not enough positions in academia, especially when considering that Ph.D. candidates and post docs are doing much of the work for pennies on the dollar. From a previously linked Science Mag article,
“Indeed, the production of PhDs has far outstripped demand for university lecturers. In a recent book, Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus, an academic and a journalist, report that America produced more than 100,000 doctoral degrees between 2005 and 2009. In the same period there were just 16,000 new professorships. Using PhD students to do much of the undergraduate teaching cuts the number of full-time jobs. Even in Canada, where the output of PhD graduates has grown relatively modestly, universities conferred 4,800 doctorate degrees in 2007 but hired just 2,616 new full-time professors. Only a few fast-developing countries, such as Brazil and China, now seem short of PhDs.”
With grant funds being highly competitive, academic positions becoming more and more scarce, how much consideration do post doctoral researchers give to keeping on the good side of industry? Statistically speaking, they are industry-bound eventually, and their time spent as a post doc for significantly lower wages is not directly transferable in terms of work experience when directly compared to their counterparts who immediately took positions in industry. It is established that manipulation occurs in data and research, likely under pressure to publish impactful articles and obtain greater grant funds, with suspicion of frequency significantly higher than admitted indiscretions. If obtaining grant funds and publishing impactful articles is sufficient to manipulate results, then wouldn’t they want to stay on the good side of potential funders, or future employers?
In fact, even if an aspiring academic wants to remain in academia and has no doubt about their chance of success in this regard, it is increasingly becoming clear that courting private funding is a necessary concession for public researchers. As The Atlantic notes, academics are regularly encouraged to go to meet and greets with private industry funding sources, where non-disclosure agreements are immediately circulated, a practice that academics are encouraged to pursue not from the industry sources, but from their own administration. The writer in the article goes on to discuss the blurring lines between public and private research:
“Proponents of such arrangements—including all of the university officials I spoke with—say that corporate engagement in research is critical if universities are to continue their cutting-edge work. For many opponents, however, the mere mention that a corporation has sponsored research is enough to dismiss it as compromised. That’s because corporate backers can be given a great deal of power and latitude, selecting the specific kinds of studies, materials, and techniques to be used in exchange for their funding. Unsurprisingly, companies excel at creating the conditions most likely to give them the results they want. ‘It’s a problem, obviously,’ says Ivan Oransky, a distinguished writer in residence at New York University’s Carter Journalism Institute, where he teaches medical journalism. ‘But if you tried to rid literature of every badly designed study, you’d be left with about four papers a year.’”
As the lines continue to blur between public and private research, it has become entirely possible that public research is as (or more) compromised than their private counterparts in some areas. This can be stated if one was to argue that those with less financial security are more likely to become compromised. That said, there are areas where private research is still undoubtedly more corrupt, as detailed in the likelihood that clinical trial results are published. Another shifty strategy involves shifting goalposts once the trial is already underway. This entails cutting a trial short, or extending, and then abruptly stopping once a statistical occurrence happens.
Peer review is broken, public research is compromised, and unfortunately, it is also less effective. Private researchers are left to conduct their research as board members and administrators worry about funding. In the public sector, the scientists who ought to be doing the thinking and conducting research, the skills at which they are trained, are stuck also worrying about funding.
Next week, after a dismal assessment of everything wrong, I start to discuss what is right with some new systems, why it is better than the alternative, and I propose solutions to mend some of the deep-rooted issues.