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The delicate balancing act of research funding


Many people see privately funded research as a threat to academic independence, but this is an incomplete view. Experts with close connections to politics and business are a logical consequence of a knowledge-based society. It is time for a fundamental debate on responsible research partnerships.

Credible scientists and universities are the most valuable assets of a knowledge-based society. Scientific knowledge is growing inexorably and our technological world is becoming more complex by the day. The time gap between the discovery of new knowledge and putting it to use is narrowing. Society has less and less time to absorb innovations that are increasingly difficult for lay people to judge. The main task for science in our time, then, is no longer simply the discovery of new knowledge, but also maintenance of the public's trust in rational argument to solve societal problems.

But this trust has become vulnerable. Society is going through a "Donald Trumpification" at the moment, in which experts are increasingly seen as part of a corrupt elite. A looser relationship with facts is, in politics at least, socially acceptable. In a world where everyone can express themselves on equal terms, especially on social media, it has become difficult to separate fact from opinion. But when we ignore facts and lose trust in well-founded arguments, we are endangering democracy and the sustainability of society.

The primacy of free research funding

Trust and a critical examination of the facts are central to many institutions within a democracy - for example, courts of law, parliaments, banks, media and universities. These institutions are founded on a grand but vulnerable utopian idea: the belief that a disinterested collaboration across generations and cultures works despite individual interests. Researchers, for example, rely on a daily basis on the judgement of people who they often have not met. As a researcher, I assume that a colleague in China, Iran or Cuba is not influenced by the government, and that a colleague in North America, Europe or Japan is not motivated by financial interests.

An important reason for the startling success of this belief is that judges and scientists are able to do their jobs without financial worries, and thus without any pressure from outside influences. When it comes to courts of law or central banks, we agree that even a small dependence on private funding would be problematic. With universities, the question is increasingly arising of how interest-based financing should complement independent research funding. In application-oriented sectors, research engaged in developing new products or solving societal problems is often already funded by direct commissions. However, it is precisely here that we need scientists who follow wild ideas, think laterally and sometimes fail, and who are free to point out a wrong approach to their sponsors. It is crucial that scientists are able to form independent judgements on new medicines, effective climate policy or reliable financial systems. This can be achieved only with sufficient independent applied research: basic research into practical problems.

Private research funding - a balancing act

Against this background, the proximity of science to businesses can become problematic. There is no doubt that science is vulnerable to influence from private interests; for example, representatives of such interests have been manipulating facts on climate change and smoking for decades. Questions of scientific independence, vested interests and influence by donors are also a matter for debate in Switzerland. The private financing of chairs at Swiss universities has been repeatedly criticised.

On the other hand, completely independent research is an unobtainable ideal - and would not be desirable. Research promotes the innovative strength of the economy, but this does not work if researchers retreat into ivory towers. The strengths of independent research - credibility, diversity, and critical thinking - can contribute to private-sector innovation processes leading to ecological and socially responsible products. In order to achieve this, public research should be integrated into product development at an early stage. Experts whose work is tightly interwoven with the business world are a logical consequence of the knowledge-based society. The question is not how to avoid this, but rather how to shape it in a responsible fashion.

Culture of responsible research partnerships

The focus of public debate is predominantly on donations, through which companies can finance entire professorships - or at least the initial funding. Whether this compromises academic credibility depends on a continuously fostered culture of responsible research partnerships.

It is self-evident that donation contracts between a private company and a university must guarantee independent research and publication. But as is often the case with control mechanisms, a purely formal regulation or delegation of responsibilities to individuals are not enough. Where exactly the line should be drawn depends on the individual case - informal factors, such as personal relationships, play a role, too. This is why additional rules and processes are required:

  • Transparency: Sponsors, funding sources and contracts are available to the public at all times, and should be cited in publications and communications.
  • Code of conduct: Professors and universities will never promote a partner's product.
  • Independent control: An endowed chair has an advisory board with representatives from civil society as a counterweight to private funding.
  • Ombudsperson: An independent advisory body to which affected parties can turn for issues relating to independence of research.
  • Culture of critical thinking: A donation contract stipulates explicitly that an endowed chair engages critically with the field of work and the sponsor's products.
  • Education: In addition to expertise in their subject areas, the holder of an endowed chair should possess further qualities and characteristics, such as integrity, strength of character and knowledge of ethical and social aspects of research.
The involvement of universities with private funding has been criticised by the public. However, it is important not to forget that universities are a part of our society and as such are a responsibility we all share. How much are we, as taxpayers, ready to pay for independent teaching and research?

Source: ETH Zürich