Lesson #5 | The Citizen’s Guide to Research

Follow the money

Last week, we talked about how research topics are chosen, based on three factors:

  • industry demand;
  • unexplored territory;
  • long-term impact.

This week, we’ll talk in more depth about industry demand: how research is funded.

Knowing where research originates is vital in measuring a study’s credibility and impact. There are two parts to this topic: where the funding comes from, and how this impacts research.

But there’s also a question that I hear frequently:

Why does research need funding?

Well, research is a profession like any other, which means those who do it need to make a living and support their families. Science is not just an abstraction; it has a real, tangible impact on our lives every day. Funding helps cover people’s time, expertise, and supplies needed for the study (including materials, laboratories, technology, travel, etc.).

Many researchers are affiliated with a university or institute, serving as professors or full-time research faculty; however, their base income usually doesn’t cover separate expenses that arise during a study, requiring the need for additional funding.

While many researchers would love to conduct research without worrying about money, it’s the reality. (It helps when society can see it as a worthy investment.)

Where funding comes from

Research is funded in two ways: through public grants and institutions, or by private people/organizations. To start, I recommend reading this excellent article by Boston University as part of their “Making Research Work” series: “Who picks up the tab for science?”

Public Funding

Public funding refers to funding from the government, often through the form of grants or scholarships. Government-funded research means that researchers are provided with government funding for their studies, or the research is conducted by the government themselves. Many countries have a state “research council,” such as the National Science Foundation in the United States.

Private Funding

Private funding refers to funding that comes from private organizations, such as non-profits, industries, corporations, professional organizations, and philanthropists. Like public funding, this often means that the research itself is conducted by members of these groups, but outside researchers can also be awarded with funding like this. Private funders of research include groups like SpaceX.

Another option: crowdfunding

Some researchers are choosing to have their projects publically crowdfunded (which is technically an offshoot of “private” funding). Experiment is a crowdfunding platform specifically for scientific research. Anyone can browse the projects there, and contribute to the projects that need funding. This is a great way for researchers of all levels make their studies a reality, and helps them branch outside of what the current “demand” may be in their field.

How does funding impact research?

I highly recommend reading this great piece by UC Berkeley called, “Who pays for science?” It’s undeniable that funding, regardless of its source, can make a difference in the research process, methods, and outcomes. How does this work when research scientists must adhere to strict ethical rules? (We’ll discuss research ethics in the coming weeks.)

In a perfect world, money wouldn’t matter — all scientific studies (regardless of funding source) would be completely objective. But of course, in the real world, funding may introduce biases — for example, when the backer has a stake in the study’s outcome. A pharmaceutical company paying for a study of a new depression medication, for example, might influence the study’s design or interpretation in ways that subtly favor the drug that they’d like to market. There is evidence that some biases like this do occur. Drug research sponsored by the pharmaceutical industry is more likely to end up favoring the drug under consideration than studies sponsored by government grants or charitable organizations. Similarly, nutrition research sponsored by the food industry is more likely to end up favoring the food under consideration than independently funded research.
“Who pays for science?”

The same can be said for public funding, although that tends to — historically — have a much more stringent review process than private funding. In an extreme bias-impact scenario, a university could encourage its researchers to claim breakthroughs that may be overstated, to ensure that the university gets credit for the science and/or maintains funding.

BUT, to clarify: funding is a vital part of research, regardless of the source. But it’s important to know the source and think critically about how it may impact the science in some way.

What’s great is that much of these concerns can be mitigated through peer review. Peer review is when other researchers in the field read and review a study and its data to ensure that the methods were optimal and the results are well-supported. Through peer review, bias is identified and can be corrected for future studies on the topic.

Part 1:
Find an article on a topic of your choice in a research publication. See if you can easily identify the source of the funding. Look up the funding institution. Can you tell if the study was publically or privately funded?

Part 2:
Visit Experiment.com and peruse some of the proposed projects. Are there any that you would contribute to? Do they include enough information in their pitch to convey what their research questions and methods are?

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