24 Political Motivations for Funding

Science is often depicted as a completely objective and trustworthy source of knowledge, immune to the various complications that affect most aspects of our world. However, when one looks at science in such a shallow way, it can lead to misunderstanding. In contrast to popular thought, science faces many complex issues that scientists struggle to steer through. One of those complications is a result of the financial aspect of scientific research. In order to pursue research, scientists need adequate funding, which is competitive to acquire. Today, a majority of that funding comes from agenda-seeking private industries that manufacture the products being studied . With financial ties often comes influence and obligation. It has been shown that a strong correlation exists between the outcomes of studies and the sources that fund the studies. This is commonly referred to as the funding effect (Krimsky, 2012). The biases that can appear as a result of a study’s funding source can be either conscious or unconscious, and can emerge in a study’s structure or the result’s presentation (Krimsky, 2012). Mostly unbeknownst to the public, funding can have a huge effect on the favorable or unfavorable nature of a study’s results. The issue of funding bias is complicated in nature because scientists desperately need funding that is no longer provided by the government . However, how much are today’s scientist willing to potentially hinder their credibility as a result of accepting private funds ? The most effective way to refocus the integrity of scientific research lies with the federal government commitment to stopping the increased privatization and making science public again. It must resuscitate its duty to fund and encourage scientific research, as well as attempt to educate the American people so they can understand and possess scientific knowledge rather than simply mindlessly believing every scientific study, no matter how biased, is true.

In today’s world, public opinion of science is an overwhelmingly positive one in which most Americans believe that scientific research brings more benefits than it does harm (Johnson, 1990). However, one expert who studied people’s attitudes towards science has found that only one in eighteen Americans are scientifically literate enough to have educated opinions about scientific issues (Johnson, 1990). Even though a majority of the public has confidence in the advantages that scientific innovation gives society, most of those people trust science without understanding how it actually works, and therefore science is treated as “a faith system…like religion” (Johnson, 1990, p.2432). The attitude that scientific studies are an infallible source in which on should blindly trust can lead to the ignorance of compilations that can occur when issues such as funding bias come into play. Largely, the public ignores the details that go into science, such as the fact that scientists need money in order to do their research. Therefore, the possible influences scientists can be exposed to when accepting funds from private industries are often overlooked. However, overlooking the power of financial affiliation is a dangerous oversight. As of now, the American public tends not to consider the possibility that funding bias exits in the research that they believe. Therefore, people are prone to taking scientific studies at face value and making uneducated decisions based upon those results. In doing so, that can be detrimental to people’s health and the health of their world.

On a whole, most members of the scientific community acknowledge that the way research studies are funded and conducted have changed drastically over the years. In 2006, 65% of U.S. research and development was funded by private industry, a drastic change shift from 1965, when the federal government funded more than 60% of  all U.S. research and development (Washburn, 2007). National agencies try to compensate for diminishing funds by pairing with private industries. Similarly, underfunded by the government, research universities look towards private industry to sponsor their research . One could argue that this increased industry support enhances science by providing increased funding and speeding up industry innovation. However, many scientists are concerned about the growing imbalance between public and private funding and the increased commercialization in scientific research (Washburn, 2007). Specifically, due to the possibilities of biases skewing research, questions have arisen about the integrity of industry-funded project. It is rare to find a person in science today that is free of any conflicts of interests, according to one former FDA commissioner, and that is a result of the recently changed landscape of research funding (Washburn, 2007).

Many credit the origin of this shift to have occurred after Congress passed the Bayh-Dole Act, which gave universities and their professors the rights to own and commercialize their research, and thus popularized patenting and licensing knowledge (Washburn, 2007). With these tools, corporations no longer picked up research freely and publically, but instead academic scientists have become financially bound to private outside industries that pay for their research (Washburn, 2007). A single company now funds entire departments  and universities have begun to, “treat their science divisions as money makers,” (Yarborough, 2014, p.1). This clear threat of funding bias can result in various types of misconduct including: skewing the design of the study in order to yield favorable results, only performing studies with predictable outcomes, concealing or altering data, publishing reports that are rhetorically constructed to favor the sponsor, and the tendency for industry sponsored trials to be published more prominently than the studies of independent researchers (Doucet & Sismondo, 2008).

In recent years, university faculty members have found themselves burdened by navigating the minefield of private funding. About 2% of scientists admit to modifying data, and as many as one third of all scientists have admitted to changing aspects of their studies due to pressure from the funding source (Fanelli, 2009). In 2005, a study was conducted in which over 100 academic medical centers were evaluated. It was found that half allowed corporate sponsors to ghostwrite academic research, while only granting faculty permission to suggest revisions (Washburn, 2007). Thirty-Five percent of institutions had allowed the corporate sponsor to hide trial data from the academic investigator, and 62% allowed the corporate sponsor to change the design of the study (Washburn, 2007). The conflict lies in the reality that academic scientists are desperate for funding, and in many cases, can only get that proper funding from private industry. Therefore, accepting the corporate funds seems like the easiest and best ways for scientists to conduct research. However, one cannot deny the potential for risk of “pressure [on the scientists]…to produce results favorable to the company,” (Doucet & Sismondo, 2008, p.627). Further, universities are not equipped with the proper policies to protect their faculty against the possible ramifications of accepting private funding (Washburn, 2007).

Funding bias has found its way, not only into academia, but also into federal agencies. In a recent study, 34% of federally funded scientists admitted to committing misconduct in their research. Additionally, only 24% of these researchers had reported these questionable research practices to their superiors (Titus & Bosch, 2010). Clearly, a defeated attitude exists within the community today because scientists do not feel obligated to protect the integrity of research. This suggests that misconduct is more common than not and speaking up could present a risk of losing funding that many scientists are not willing to take. Many members of scientific advisory boards are financially linked to the private industries that make the products of which it is their job to objectively review. For example, the Center for Evaluation of Risk to Human Reproduction is a branch of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) that evaluates possible health risks that certain chemicals can have on reproductive health. Up until April of 2007, the NIH outsourced chemical reviews to Sciences International (SI), a private firm that is funded by over 40 chemical industry clients (Washburn, 2007). Similarly, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) receives over half of its funds for drug reviews from pharmaceutical companies, and therefore, “has been captured by the industry it is supposed to regulate,” (Washburn, 2007, p.7). Clearly, there is a conflict of interest problem that exists when federal agencies bind themselves financially with the private industries they are supposed to monitor. Many within the scientific community worry that these ties have and will result in biases that threaten the public, who trust their government agencies to provide them honest information about the issues, such as food and drugs, that directly effect them. Similarly to universities, federal agencies do not have the proper policies in order to protect their scientific research from private industry’s influence. Poorly funded, agencies have no choice but to depend on scientific evidence provided by private industries. However in doing so, they may be sacrificing their authority and integrity.

The issue of funding bias is especially apparent in the pharmaceutical industry, Big Pharma, which finances about 70% of the United State’s clinical drug research (Washburn, 2007). Many studies have been done in which the relationship between industry funded studies and pro-industry results is examined. Overwhelmingly, it has been shown that “the manufacturer-associated drug is always reported as being either superior to or comparable with the comparison drugs,” and these claims are “often not supported by trial data” (Krimsky, 2012 p.571). In 2010, a study evaluated 44 published articles that analyzed the results of six different oncology drugs. It was found that unfavorable conclusions were found in 38% of the nonprofit-sponsored studies and in only 5% in the industry-sponsored study (Krimsky, 2012). This huge statistical disparity seems to point to a strong relationship between the pharmaceutical industry’s funding of studies and favorable drug reviews . Big Pharma essentially pays for positive results so drug manufacturers can yield a large profit. The fact that the public, the ones consuming these drugs, are so unaware about this effect that funding can have on studies is worrying. People should know what they are putting into their bodies, however the public’s scientific illiteracy is just feeding more money into Big Pharma. Such dishonest research that results from funding bias is unethical and puts American health into serious jeopardy.

In 2004, Big Pharma company GlaxoSmithKline was the subject of controversy when the company was hit with a lawsuit that claimed it had hidden negative data concerning the antidepressant drug, Paxil. Once the studies were properly assessed, it came to light that children on Paxil were in fact twice as more likely to have suicidal thoughts than children given the placebo pill (Washburn, 2007). Two years later, cardiologist Steven Nissen began to question to safety of Avandia, a top-selling diabetes drug manufactured by GlaxoSmithKline. After being denied access to original data on patient studies, Nissen came across forty-two patient trials testing Avandia, out of which only fifteen were actually published by GlaxoSmithKline. From these studies, Nissen reported that the drug raised the risk of heart attacks by 43% in The New England Journal of Medicine. A few days later the FDA gave the drug it’s toughest warning label, the “black box” (Washburn, 2007). Afterwards, fellow scientists attacked Nissen in the media. Interestingly enough, most of those who challenged his research were people with blatant financial ties to Big Pharma (Washburn, 2007). These scientist’s affiliations make is so they could have reason to be nonobjective and therefore their contributions to the argument can only be looked with suspicion. When financial motivations are brought into what is supposed to be objective science, it caused the repression of negative results. This endangered the health and lives of the many who were on Avandia to treat their diabetes. The effects that private industry, such as Big Pharma, funding has on science does not only threaten the integrity of the scientific process, but threatens the lives of the public who are unable to parse trustworthy science from biased science.

In the same way, the financial influence of the tobacco industry on a study is found to have a strong affiliation to outcomes that favor tobacco products. For example, in 1988, two scientists evaluated 106 reviews on the safety of second hand smoke. They discovered that while 94% of industry funded articles concluded second hand smoke is not harmful, only 13% of articles authored by those non-affiliated with the tobacco industry found the same favorable results (Krimsky, 2012). It was concluded that industry associated studies were 88.4 times more likely than nontobacco influenced studies to claim that passive smoking is not harmful (Krimsky, 2012). In this case, the tobacco executives used their vast funds to buy blatantly dishonest research in an attempt to increase their profits. Again, the huge influence financial affiliations can have on a study is very concerning and dangerous to the health of Americans who for the most part trust scientific studies blindly. If highly visible cigarette ads advocated second hand smoke was not harmful, it is likely many people believed those statistics and did not properly protect themselves from its truly damaging effects.

Similarly to the tobacco example, studies done on BPA show another clear conflict of interest concerning studies with industry ties. After evaluating studies done on the possible effects caused by BPA leaching from plastic goods, 109 out of the 119 studies funded by the federal government showed harmful outcomes. However, in the studies funded by chemical companies, zero found harmful consequences of BPA (Krimsky, 2012). Experts believe the chemical companies used structural bias in the design of their experiments such as omitting a positive control, which allows for researchers to be unobligated to make the determination of what actually caused negative results (Krimsky, 2012). Therefore, BPA used a blatant and dishonest trick in their study in order to yield the results that promoted their industry. Again, this is another example of funding bias posing a threat to the trusting public as a result of financial affiliations and motives. Clearly, the scientific community must make changes if it hopes to keep its integrity in tact and continue to be trusted by the public. Scientific research is meant to bring about innovations that improve people’s knowledge of the world and quality of life. However, it has turned into a tool used by financially drive big industries in order to self self-serve and keep up profits at the expense of the public.

It must be the concern of the scientific community to “reward the public trust in scientists with trustworthy science” (Yarborough, year, p.2). However, this can only be done once regulations are made and universal guidelines for reliable scientific research are strictly enforced. Those guidelines should most importantly include: the full disclosure of financial ties in every publication of a study and the obligation of academic researchers to disclose all their affiliations (financial or otherwise) to the public (Rowe et al., 2009). In implementing these types of guidelines that require absolute transparency, the public can be better informed about where their information is coming from and evaluate the possible biases that could exist within certain studies. In being presented this information, the public would be encouraged to think for themselves and learn that scientific research can be effected by outside forces such as financial associations. Hopefully, by putting more thought into scientific issues, it would allow and encourage people to make better and more educated decisions for their health and their world.

Two experts suggest that entire institutions should be evaluated on something called ‘responsible institutional behavior.’ That is, universities would be able to achieve a ‘center of excellence’ status based upon their commitment to research integrity and therefore be rewarded with extra federal funding. This system would in theory give “research integrity the respect it needs and deserves,” and thus discourage the misconduct that can come with corporate funding (Titus & Bosch p.437). With systems like this in place, the public would be encouraged place their trust in research done only by distinguished and approved institutions. Therefore, people would understand that not all studies are of equal quality and they would learn how to distinguish integrity from deceitfulness in terms of research.

It seems that the most fundamental and important way to quell the controversies caused by corporate funding in science is for the United States government to increase its contribution to science. One expert believes that the issue is “not that industry is dominating science but rather that government is abdicating what I think should be its role”(Washburn, year, p.9). That is, if the issue of funding bias is going to be confronted, it must come primarily from the federal government stepping up its to civic duty and providing its public unbiased and accurate science. Therefore, the public needs to support the government’s scientific agencies and elect officials who are concerned about maintaining scientific integrity and will work to increase funding. The government also needs to take on the federal duty to educate its citizens in scientific literacy so they can make educated decisions about important issues. Overall, the public must move past its blind faith in science and instead learn to care about and evaluate scientific research in a well-informed manner. Once the American public becomes more scientifically literate, science will “lose[es] the magical pseudo-religious tenor,” a step which needs to be taken (Johnson, 1990 p.2432). People must understand that scientific innovation is the result of hard work and scientists cannot accomplish completely on their own. Our world needs scientific research in order to improve, and the public needs to start acknowledging and caring about that fact. One cannot allow profit driven industry to dictate one’s health and the state of one’s world. If that continues to be the case, this concept of “science” we have today will become detrimental to people’s quality of life, not beneficial.

Richard Nelson, a Columbia economist believes that “Not so long ago, academics and government scientists insured that the basic building blocks of science were freely available to everyone. Today…a sizable portion of this public knowledge is private property” (Washburn, 2007 p.9). In privatizing science, there is room for funding bias to influence studies and take away from the integrity of research. The only way to stop this trend, that actually has the potential to endanger the health of the public and the world, is to return to federally funded public science. In placing the government back in the forefront of scientific research and stopping privatization, with some new regulations and obligations, the public will be encouraged to care about and understand scientific research in a new and beneficial way. People need to be steered away from maintaining a blind faith in science and instead they need to be given the tools to appreciate the way science truly works and how it is vitally important to their own lives and the state of the world. Eric Campbell of Harvard University believes that even though private industry funding can provide the benefit of increased funds and faster transportation of information, “the fundamental reason the public invests in science is out of the belief that it represents truth, untainted by commercial interests,” and scientific community must return to that original integrity (Washburn, 2007 p.9).


Doucet, M., & Sismondo, S. (2008). Evaluating solutions to sponsorship bias. Journal of Medical Ethics, 34(8), 627-630 .

Fanelli, D. (2009). How Many Scientists Fabricate and Falsify Research? PsycEXTRA Dataset, 4(5), 1-11. doi:10.1037/e648372011-008

Johnson, R. (1990). The public image of science and its funding. The FASEB Journal, 4(8), 2431-2432 .

Krimsky, S. (2012). Do Financial Conflicts of Interest Bias Research?: An Inquiry into the “Funding Effect” Hypothesis. Science, Technology & Human Values,38(4), 566-587. doi:10.1177/0162243912456271

Rowe, S., Alexander, N., Clydesdale, F., Applebaum, R., Atkinson, S., Black, R., . . . Wedral, E. (2009). Funding food science and nutrition research: Financial conflicts and scientific integrity. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 89(5), 1285-1291. doi:doi: 10.3945/​ajcn.2009.27604

Titus, S., & Bosch, X. (2010). Tie funding to research integrity. Nature, 466, 436-437. doi:10.1038/466436a

Washburn, J. (2007, October 11). Science’s worst enemy: Corporate funding. Discover Magazine, 1-9. Retrieved from http://discovermagazine.com/2007/oct/sciences-worst-enemy-private-funding

Yarborough, M. (2014). Openness in science is key to keeping public trust. Nature, 515(7527), 313-313. doi:10.1038/515313a