Funding in Science

Does Funding Source Create Bias?

One thing to consider is that no matter who funds a particular study, every funder has some form of bias. While much of the discussion of funding bias in science has focused on studies funded by industry, it’s important to note that research funded by government grants and private foundation has a similar effect.

As Dr. David Katz, M.D., Director of the Yale Prevention Research Center, wrote:

The core funds for my research lab come from the CDC. Funding for a number of our studies over the years have come from various federal agencies, including the NIH, CDC, HRSA, AHRQ, and USDA — to provide a representative list. We have also run studies funded by private foundations; some funded principally by no-strings-attached philanthropy; and yes, some funded by industry — including pharmaceutical companies, nutriceutical companies and food companies.

The confession here is that I have been comparably biased every time. Bias simply implies an a priori preference — the hope for, and perhaps expectation of, a particular outcome. So here’s the thing: Why would any researcher waste time doing research (which is generally quite tedious and taxing) if he or she did NOT hope for a particular outcome? I always do.

So, too, do all funders. While the NIH does not generally manufacture and sell the interventions it studies, it certainly does care about the outcomes. NIH, too, must justify its existence, and budget — just not to shareholders. NIH and all federal agencies are accountable to Congress, and by extension to us, in our tax-paying multitudes. NIH competes in the federal budget with other societal priorities (and, no doubt, pork-barrel boondoggles); and perhaps more intensely, the various institutes compete with one another for slices of the common pie. Too many negative study results tend to suggest that an institute is not spending money all that well and wisely — and affect the outcome of that competition. Even NIH program officers are biased about study outcomes.

Because every researcher comes into a study with some expectation of results, funding source shouldn’t necessarily discount research findings. That’s why critical evaluation of studies’ methodologies and peer review is essential to reporting on the strength of findings.

Many studies require millions of dollars in funding to complete. To complete their research, scientists rely on funding from several different sources, usually from foundations, environmental or public health activist groups, the federal government, or industry.

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