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nikipedia's avatar

Do funding sources necessarily affect the outcome of research?

Asked by nikipedia (27333 points ) February 1st, 2010

Funding for scientific research has been drying up lately, and as a result I have been noticing more research tapping into unconventional funding sources.

A recent paper in the highly-respected journal Nature showed that barefoot running generates smaller collision forces than running in supportive shoes. This study was funded in part by Vibram USA, a company that produces minimalist shoes to simulate barefoot running.

A group of organizations committed to showing that vaccines cause autism recently promised to fund research “replicating” the work of a specific scientist responsible for the hypothesis that vaccines and autism are related.

So on the one hand, this kind of funding seems to make a priori assumptions about what the outcome of the study will be and runs the risk of biasing the outcome. But on the other, if the methodology is sound, does it matter where the money came from?

In a world where government money is drying up, companies with a vested interest in the outcome of a given research project may be the best bet to get your research funded. It is in the best interest of both the company and the scientists to work together. So do you trust research with a monetary conflict of interest? Why or why not?

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26 Answers

ragingloli's avatar

An entity that has financial interest in a specific outcome of a study they fund will likely falsify the results should they run contrary to their interest. That is why such research has to be taken with utmost caution.

lucillelucillelucille's avatar

Unfortunately,I think it can and does.

Snarp's avatar

Funding sources do not necessarily affect the outcome of research, but they certainly raise questions about it’s credibility. The running research is interesting, but I take it with a grain of salt, and when I see who funded the research, the grain gets bigger.

The vaccine and autism research though is worse. The original Wakefield study was deeply flawed, and blatantly fraudulent and it was funded by trial lawyers who were suing vaccine manufacturers. The new study is guaranteed to be equally flawed.

This is why in science replication is important. If other experimenters can’t replicate the results of a study, then we don’t treat that study as having proved anything, and it doesn’t really matter who funded it. In the case of the Wakefield study, not only was it not replicated, but many of the flaws could be found in an expert reading of the study. I don’t know if that is true of the running study. Interested party funding should certainly inspire a close inspection of the study and its results, but no study should be taken as proof until it is replicated by other scientists, some of whom will hopefully not be funded by interested parties. Unfortunately the media do not always recognize this and have a tendency to report a study as if it proves a case without understanding potential flaws as well as conflicts of interest.

Snarp's avatar

What funding sources definitely do, even if they don’t affect the outcome, is affect what questions are asked and what research is done, and sometimes that’s just as bad.

stranger_in_a_strange_land's avatar

It puts you in a serious ethical bind if your data doesn’t agree with the preconcieved notions of your funding source. Word may get around with corporate funders that you don’t “get with the program”. A sad situation for a researcher to be in. Special interests want to create a “research to order” environment.

Harp's avatar

There was a study about “sponsorship bias” that looked at 206 articles publishing research results, in this case all relating to health effects of various beverages. For the 111 studies that declared their funding source, It correlated the funding source with the results of the studies, and arrived at the following conclusions:

“22% had all industry funding, 47% had no industry funding, and 32% had mixed funding. Funding source was significantly related to conclusions when considering all article types (p = 0.037). For interventional studies, the proportion with unfavorable conclusions was 0% for all industry funding versus 37% for no industry funding (p = 0.009). The odds ratio of a favorable versus unfavorable conclusion was 7.61 (95% confidence interval 1.27 to 45.73), comparing articles with all industry funding to no industry funding.”

wundayatta's avatar

Another way of handling this is releasing only those studies that support your position, and mothballing those that don’t.

Seek's avatar

@Harp

Who funded that study? :^)

CyanoticWasp's avatar

Richard Feynman did a wonderful speech on this topic as his commencement address to the Caltech class of 1974. Google Cargo cult science and you’ll find all kinds of links to it. (I hope that reference has whetted your desire to look it up and read it.)

Basically, he’s saying to the likely scientists and researchers in the class that your source of funding shouldn’t matter, if you decide that your ethics mandate that you present all outcomes of your research, whether or not it furthers the funding entity’s viewpoints or not.

It’s a great essay; well worth the read. I heartily recommend it.

Definitely a good question, though.

Harp's avatar

@Seek_Kolinahr Good question!

“This study was supported by a grant from the Charles H. Hood Foundation (Boston, Massachusetts, United States) and discretionary funds from the Department of Medicine, Children’s Hospital Boston (Massachusetts, United States) to DSL. LIL was supported by a medical student research fellowship from the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry (Rochester, New York, United States). The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.”

stranger_in_a_strange_land's avatar

It’s definitely a threat to the proper application of the scientific method.

suncatnin's avatar

My university is still dealing with the fallout from several research partnerships with Philip Morris USA (now Altria) in which Altria reviewed all research before publication regarding tobacco and could veto a researcher’s ability to publish. The relationship between the university and Altria/PMU appears to go back as far as 1975. Here’s a NYT article on it from 2008: http://tinyurl.com/yf92os2 The university has received substantial grant money external to research from the company as well, so there was vested financial interest and “restrictive language” that cut down on academic and research integrity.

westy81585's avatar

Yes.

In fact they already have a cure for aids….. It’s called… money

Cupcake's avatar

Even if the funding source doesn’t bias the outcome, it would bias whether (or in what type of communication) the results were published.

nikipedia's avatar

@Cupcake: Why would that be the case? The funding source would presumably provide money for the research materials… how would that influence publishers?

Nullo's avatar

@westy81585
That’s the cure for whiny people.

Cruiser's avatar

I found this blurb and to me seems to properly address this funding issue….

“Funding Source: A study might be criticised, or its findings dismissed entirely, because industry or another interested party funded it. Many scientific journals today require that potential conflicts of interest be disclosed and sources of funding be referenced at the end of a paper. Although it is interesting to note the funding source of a study, it is unfair, and perhaps short-sighted, to simply negate results solely on the basis of the funding source.

The reason that studies are often funded by organisations that may benefit from the results is obvious. After all, who else but an interested party would allocate the large amounts of money that good research often requires? For example, when a company seeks approval for a new food ingredient, it is required by law to provide data to demonstrate the ingredient’s safety. Government funding, from taxpayers, would not invest millions of Euros to study food ingredients or products that may never come to market.

Ethical researchers would not manipulate data or design studies to support funding interests. Indeed, most industry funders would not want a “tell them what they want to hear” researcher; they want real answers to their questions. A critical evaluation of research on its own merit is the best way to assess its validity and importance. If the study is good, its results will stand on their own, regardless of who supported the research.”

http://www.eufic.org/article/fr/page/RARCHIVE/expid/Understanding-scientific-studies/

Cupcake's avatar

@nikipedia I didn’t mean to imply that the publishers would be less likely to publish a sponsored study. I meant that unflattering data/results would likely be suppressed.

philosopher's avatar

In some cases studies are affected by who is funding them. You should always know who conducted the research.

daemonelson's avatar

I don’t mind where the money comes from, but as soon as it causes scientists to turn a blind eye to results, I’m angry.

Ruallreb8ters's avatar

Funding research is what Thomas Edison did, more than anythig, now he is credited with invinting the light bulb. Private companies should, and do, fund research. The fact that new technology can be made profitable is only a good thing.

YARNLADY's avatar

I wouldn’t use the word “necessarily” but it certainly could’ influence the outcome.

Jeruba's avatar

Is the funding entity committed to seeing the results published regardless of outcome? Or will only favorable results see the light of day?

stranger_in_a_strange_land's avatar

It’s especially important that research funded by a vested interest be verified by researchers not so funded. But how to these verifiers get funding?

stranger_in_a_strange_land's avatar

@Jeruba makes an excellent point. If the funders decide to “sit on” results they don’t like it is very harmful to the advancement of knowledge. Do they “own” the results of the study?

nikipedia's avatar

@Jeruba: Publication is a sticky issue. Lots of studies (I have heard, though I have no source, this is the case for the majority of studies) are never published. Sometimes, certainly, this is because the experiment failed to prove the hypothesis, and the researchers are trying to keep their findings quiet so the hypothesis still lives.

But more often it’s because someone messed up the experiment, or something completely bizarre and nonsensical happened, or the publishers simply aren’t interested in the findings, or the publishers asked for a control that is not feasible (this happened recently in my lab), or a hundred other things.

Generally speaking, negative findings tend not to be published. Few people are interested in reading, NOVEL PHARMACEUTICAL DRUG PROVEN TO HAVE NO STATISTICALLY SIGNIFICANT SIDE EFFECTS! or HYPOTHESIZED TREATMENT THAT NEVER SAW THE LIGHT OF DAY PROVEN TO BE TOTALLY USELESS!

@stranger_in_a_strange_land: Well, this is ideally why the government should stay invested in science. And as for sitting on results: in my experience in academic science, the funders own exactly none of the results. But the people executing the research may choose not to publish so as not to piss off their lifeline. I have not personally seen this happen, but that sounds not unlikely to me.

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