Today, we all do. Most scientific research is funded by government grants (e.g., from the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, etc.), companies doing research and development, and non-profit foundations (e.g., the Breast Cancer Research Foundation, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, etc.). As a society, we reap the rewards from this science in the form of technological innovations and advanced knowledge, but we also help pay for it. You indirectly support science everyday through taxes you pay, products and services you purchase from companies, and donations you make to charities. Something as simple as buying a bottle of aspirin may help foot the bill for multiple sclerosis research.
Funding for science has changed with the times. Historically, science has been largely supported through private patronage (the backing of a prominent person or family), church sponsorship, or simply paying for the research yourself. Galileo’s work in the 16th and 17th centuries, for example, was supported mainly by wealthy individuals, including the Pope. Darwin’s Beagle voyage in the 19th century was, on the other hand, funded by the British government — the vessel was testing clocks and drawing maps for the navy — and his family’s private assets financed the rest of his scientific work. Today, researchers are likely to be funded by a mix of grants from various government agencies, institutions, and foundations. For example, a 2007 study of the movement of carbon in the ocean was funded by the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Department of Energy, the Australian Cooperative Research Centre, and the Australian Antarctic Division.1 Other research is funded by private companies — such as the pharmaceutical company that financed a recent study comparing different drugs administered after heart failure.2 Such corporate sponsorship is widespread in some fields. Almost 75% of U.S. clinical trials in medicine are paid for by private companies.3 And, of course, some researchers today still fund small-scale studies out of their own pockets. Most of us can’t afford to do cyclotron research as a private hobby, but birdwatchers, scuba divers, rockhounds, and others can do real research on a limited budget.
An imperfect world
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.4 Similarly, nutrition research sponsored by the food industry is more likely to end up favoring the food under consideration than independently funded research.5
Take a sidetrip
Find out more about the tobacco industry’s manipulation of scientific research.
So what should we make of all this? Should we ignore any research funded by companies or special interest groups? Certainly not. These groups provide invaluable funding for scientific research. Furthermore, science has many safeguards in place to catch instances of bias that affect research outcomes. Ultimately, misleading results will be corrected as science proceeds; however, this process takes time. Meanwhile, it pays to scrutinize studies funded by industry or special interest groups with extra care. So don’t, for example, brush off a study of cell phone safety just because it was funded by a cell phone manufacturer — but do ask some careful questions about the research before jumping on the bandwagon. Are the results consistent with other independently funded studies? Does the study seem fairly designed? What do other scientists have to say about this research? A little scrutiny can go a long way towards identifying bias associated with funding source.
1Buesseler, K.O., C.H. Lamborg, P.W. Boyd, P.J. Lam, T.W. Trull, R.R. Bidigare, J.K.B. Bishop, K.L. Casciotti, F. Dehairs, M. Elskens, M. Honda, D.M. Karl, D.A. Siegel, M.W. Silver, D.K. Steinberg, J. Valdes, B. Van Mooy, and S. Wilson. 2007. Revisiting carbon flux through the ocean's twilight zone. Science 316:567.
2Mebazaa, A., M.S. Nieminen, M. Packer, A. Cohen-Solal, F.X. Kleber, S.J. Pocock, R. Thakkar, R.J. Padley, P. Poder, and M. Kivikko. 2007. Levosimendan vs dobutamine for patients with acute decompensated heart failure: The SURVIVE randomized trial. Journal of the American Medical Association 297:1883-1891.
3Bodenheimer, T. 2000. Uneasy alliance: Clinical investigators and the pharmaceutical industry. New England Journal of Medicine 342:1539-1544.
4Als-nielson, B., W. Chen, C. Gluud, and L.L. Kjaergard. 2003. Association of funding and conclusions in randomized drug trails: A reflection of treatment effect or adverse events? Journal of the American Medical Association 290:921-928.
5This research focused on studies of soft drinks, juice, and milk. Lesser, L.I., C.B. Ebbeling, M. Goozner, D. Wypij, and D.S. Ludwig. 2007. Relationship between funding source and conclusion among nutrition-related scientific articles. Public Library of Science Medicine 4:41-46.