Separation of Science and State?

Silly human nature, getting scientists into trouble. Until the robots are ready to take the reins of the scientific enterprise (and personally, I have my doubts that this is first item on the robots' to-do list), we're faced with the practical problem of figuring out how to keep human scientists honest. Among the broad strategies to accomplish this is reducing the potential payoff for dishonesty compared to honesty (where, as we know, doing honest science is generally more labor-intensive than just making stuff up).

I take it that this piece by David S. Oderberg is a variation on the theme. In the aftermath of the Hwang Woo-Suk stem cell fraud-o-rama, Oderberg suggests that the best way to save science from the "unholy lust" of its practitioners is to cut public funding for scientific research.

Here's what Oderberg writes:

It may be inviting poison e-mails to say it, but I venture to suggest that contemporary science is now so corrupted by the lust for loot and glory that nothing less than root-and-branch reform can save it. For a start, although I distance myself wholly from his anti-rationalism and methodological anarchy, I share the late philosopher of science Paul Feyerabend's demand for a separation of science and state, or at the very least a radical curtailment of public financial sponsorship of scientific research. How could the millions thrown at scientists be anything other than a veritable inducement to misconduct? When you combine it with the innumerable honors and awards that await the next would-be secular savior of humanity, one wonders that fraud is not even more common than it appears to be.

This is egregiously so when it comes to medical and other clinical research that has potential direct benefits to life and health. When we look at embryonic stem cell research, however, the matter becomes even more acute. For not only are there the temptations already mentioned, but the research itself is inherently ethically flawed and so invites dissimulation, for instance, in the case of sourcing human eggs -- as we saw at the outset of the Hwang debacle.

It would be an act of utter folly and of contempt for honesty and integrity were Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's beloved California Institute for Regenerative Medicine now to go ahead. Were a bishop to be caught doctoring the Gospels, I doubt any scientists would be rushing to approve the Church's latest request for help to build a new cathedral. Why it should be any different for the secular bishops of science is difficult to discern.

(Bold emphasis added.)

Please note that I don't want to get into the issue of whether embryonic stem cell research is "inherently ethically flawed" -- the issue at hand is whether public funding corrupts scientists, and whether cutting such funding would make scientists more honest.

In the case of Hwang, it's not crazy to think that the importance of his research to the Korean government might have been a problem. Oderberg writes:

Typical is the remark by Oh Il-Hwan, a geneticist at South Korea's Catholic Medical Center, on the case of erstwhile "top scientist in Korea" and now disgraced fraudster Hwang Woo Suk: "I understand what drove Hwang into this state. The pressure to achieve something was enormous." When your government calls you "top scientist" and issues a postage stamp in your honor showing a paralyzed man rising from his wheelchair and running to his lady love, you know you'd better come up with the goods.

Like any other investor in an expensive project, the Korean government wanted a return on its investment. If it happened to be a return that elevated Korea's reputation as a biomedical powerhouse, or that attracted wealthy "medical tourists" from around the world, so much the better. By all accounts, Hwang's purported achievement made him a national hero -- something which must have been pretty intoxicating. Maybe the lure of such acclaim was just too much for him to resist.

So, Oderberg seems to be suggesting that only national governments have the power to reward scientists with this kind of acclaim. This kind of acclaim is more temptation than a human scientist can be counted on to resist. Therefore, given that weak-willed scientists might be serving up fraud rather than legitimate scientific results, national governments ought not to be funding scientific research.

I don't think I buy it.

First off, there's no reason governments couldn't fund scientific research without promising to put successful scientists on postage stamps. Honestly, there are plenty of scientists who have made awesome contributions to scientific knowledge but who you couldn't pick out of a line-up. I'd venture that relatively few people go into science because they are famewhores.

Nonetheless, there's the whole competition for scarce resources (jobs, research funds, priority on discoveries, the odd prize here and there) going on within the community of science. You might think this competitive dynamic itself -- without the additional inducement of celebrity -- is enough to make scientists think about cheating. The scientists are making ethical compromises to win the competition for federal research dollars; will taking away that money take away the incentive to cheat?

I fear the alternative might be worse.

How much scientific research in the U.S. is supported with public funds? How much less money would there be funding research if all those public funds were taken out of play? Wouldn't that just raise the stakes of the competition between scientists?

If public money were taken out of scientific research, I suppose scientists would become more dependent on private funding for research. There are folks around who could surely afford to support such research, but just what research got funded would depend a lot on the whims of your rich patrons. (What kind of projects would Bill Gates be interested in funding -- and would the grad students agree to do all the computations and write them up if they had to use the Windows operating system? What if Donald Trump gave you a billion dollars for research, so long as Mark Burnett's crew got to film and edit the whole thing for broadcast?) Scientists would still be competing for funds. However, they might have to focus even more on potentially marketable offshoots of their research projects. And, it might be very hard to get the rich folk to bankroll certain research projects that don't catch their fancy (e.g., cheap renewable energy sources -- get the oil magnates interested in funding that why doncha?), or to fund "basic research" with no obvious practical applications. (Even now, federal funding agencies manage to find some money to fund "basic research".)

Private-sector research funding wouldn't just be up to rich guys, of course. Pharamceutical companies would want to fund research on drug safety and efficacy, automobile manufacturers would want to fund research on the possible linkage between tailpipe emissions and global climate change, fast food conglomerates would want to fund research on the health impacts of consuming fast food ... None of these private sector entities would be able to dangle the lure of being a national hero in front of the scientist. Yet, it seems like circumstances might still put pressure on the scientists to see their results in the light most favorable for their corporate masters.

Plus, if science is fully funded by private interests, why would those private interests give the fruits of the research back to the public for free? Couldn't we expect a mark-up? And might not some of the results the public would be willing to buy be unavailable because the private interests didn't feel like funding them? (Wanna buy a Betamax? Too bad.) To the extent that members of the general population -- even those without a lot of spending money -- have real needs for the fruits of scientific research, privatizing the funding of such research could have a bad impact on the public.

Here's another reason I'm nervous about the idea of cutting public money for scientific research: If scientists are in the position of having to scrounge all their research funding from non-governmental sources, why on earth would they let the public (via government regulation and oversight) have any say at all in how scientists do what they do? You bought the rats; who says you can't do whatever you bloody well please with them? How can you treat the cash-strapped undergraduates you've recruited for your study? That's up to market forces, isn't it? Given the (frequently understandable) frustration scientists feel at having to assemble paperwork for IRBs, suddenly making the community of science completely self-regulating might take on a throwing-off-the-chains-of-the-oppressor kind of mood, thrusting the community into a laissez faire/if-it-feels-good-do-it mode of operation that could produce more fraud (plus other ethical horrors) before things settle down. Making relations between scientists and the general public more of an Us vs. Them seems like precisely the wrong way to encourage more ethical behavior from scientists.

So, I'll concede the point to Oderberg that massive official ego-stroking of scientists might present an undue temptation to fudge results. But I don't think cutting public funding of research solves this problem. Making the task of doing scientific research more dependent on market forces seems likely to bring out the worst features of human nature. In contrast, strengthening the accountability within the scientific community, the accountability of scientists to the public, and the accountability of the public to the scientists, might make things better.

(Hat tip to Prosthesis, through which I found Oderberg's essay.)


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Wow - what a wrong-headed solution. Deplete the resources, make competition steaming hot and expect LESS fudging?

On the other hand imagine there is MORE money for funding and less earmarking for particular projects. How many people would then choose not to enter a highly competitive area that is now funded well (e.g., cancer, AIDS, stem-cell research, etc.) and indulge themselves in basic research on obscure topics which, as often happens, can have huge applications decades later?

Every medical treatment in use today was built on a century of basic, seemingly pointless research in which someone followed his/her curiosity wherever it may take one.