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Selling out science?

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Science  18 Nov 2016:
Vol. 354, Issue 6314, pp. 934
DOI: 10.1126/science.354.6314.934

A year ago, a faculty member sent an email to the recipients of our university's Dow Sustainability Fellowships, referencing an article reporting that Dow Chemical Company had provided apparently contradictory information to U.S. regulatory agencies about one of its pesticides. The faculty member implied that he thought it was hypocritical for a company that he believed was harming the environment to fund sustainability research. As a recipient of this fellowship and a scientist studying water quality, his email got me thinking about the implications of accepting money from Dow and other funding sources. Given my desire to protect public health, had I sold out when I accepted financial support from a chemical company that has at times violated environmental regulations?

ILLUSTRATION: ROBERT NEUBECKER

“I considered the ethical issues around applying for industry money.”

I learned about the fellowship a year into my doctoral program. I considered the ethical issues around applying for industry money and was encouraged to learn that the fellowship was administered through an independent foundation. Dow did not decide which research was funded, nor did it have authority to directly influence or censor the researchers it supported. Before I applied, I also spoke with a friend who had received the fellowship. He felt that although the program administrators had a pro-Dow bent, they didn't interfere with his scientific integrity, and the funding helped him do good science.

So I decided to apply, and was excited to receive the fellowship. The funding allowed me to collect extra water samples and perform experiments that gave better insight into the problems I study. It also gave me flexibility to pursue other projects that are personally and professionally enriching, such as blogging about science and traveling to conferences. By accepting Dow's money and doing good science, I've added to the collective body of scientific knowledge and benefited my career. And I have not felt restricted or censored in any way.

But I acknowledge that this arrangement also benefits Dow. The company can rightfully trumpet that it is improving public health and sustainability by funding impactful research. My work can be referenced in promotional materials, and my research findings during this fellowship will be stamped “funded by Dow Chemical.” Although I'm not working for Dow, the company profits when I take its money.

This situation makes me a little uncomfortable, but I've come to realize that other funding sources come with their own complications. Government money, for example, is often viewed as more respectable than corporate funds, but it, too, has strings attached. Relying on government money can mean shoehorning research into the priorities of the funding program. The pressure to win government grants may contribute to the disturbing number of nonreplicable studies and tactics like mining data for statistical significance, regardless of actual biological or social relevance. All of these factors can compromise the integrity of the research process—if scientists let them.

To me, selling out means losing agency or compromising ethical standards for the sake of personal gain. By this definition, I acknowledge that I am currently selling out, because I disagree with many of Dow's practices and my work is helping the company “greenwash” its image. Realistically, though, I think I would have had to sell out a little bit no matter where I got my funding. As long as researchers are dependent on external funding, we will be, in some way, subject to our funding source's agenda.

I'm thankful that the faculty member provoked me into pursuing this line of thinking. I've become more aware of the implications of accepting funding and the need to reflect on the perceptions and potential conflicts associated with different funding sources. But in the end, science costs money, and it is important not to sacrifice the good done by research in pursuit of the “perfect” funding source. Otherwise, the work might never get done at all.

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