There is a growing mistrust in science and scientists and a lot of it has to do with the fact that the average individual seems to think that scientists are bribed by companies to conduct fake science to make money. An often-heard argument for not ‘believing’ in science is that scientists, that are supposed to be objective, are clouded in their judgment or even bribed to falsify their results or statements in return for money. Clinical trails are fake, because they are sponsored by pharmaceutical companies; food science is fake, because the scientists are affiliated with large food companies. Who can we trust?!
Before I continue, I want to make clear that I am primarily talking about scientists or researchers working in academia (i.e., universities, institutes, etc.) and not in industry. Although there are some industry scientists that conduct high quality, objective basic science, most industry scientists do not publish in scientific journals. I am therefore focusing here on the everyday scientist who objectively conducts research and publishes the results in scientific papers.
My feeling is that not only conspiracy-lovers (aka “Don’t trust science – open your eyes, sheeple!”) believe this is true, but that also the average Joe has doubts about where scientists get their money and with whom they are affiliated. And this is a very reasonable doubt! So today’s topic will be: how do scientist get money and how are their salaries and research paid?
Most scientific funding for academia comes from the government. In the United States, most funding comes from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Science Foundation (NSF). In Europe, the largest government agency for research funding is the European Research Council. Additionally, most countries have there own research council, such as the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research (NWO) in the Netherlands. Additionally, a small part of research is funded by charitable foundations, such as the American Cancer Association. Researchers that want this kind of money need to compete with other scientists by submitting a grant proposal to these funding agencies and foundations. Who gets funded is based on the quality of the proposal, researcher and the institute, but also on government policies. These funds pay for research expenses as well as salaries. Researchers that receive grants from these agencies need to report to the agency on their progress and their research output will be checked.
This may ease most people’s minds, but there are a couple of situations that may be trickier. To name a couple of examples: 1) A scientists has a product or company on the side; 2) the university that a scientist works at is sponsored by a large brand; 3) a scientist gets money from a company (e.g., pharmaceutical company) to produce certain results. To start with case 3: this happens rarely if at all. If such scientific misconduct would be revealed, the scientist would be fired effective immediately or stoned to death by colleagues (“seriously?” -No). However, cases 1 and 2 do occur regularly. However, that does not mean that this has to affect the objectivity of a scientist. The product or company may not be related to the topic of research and universities would not agree with a sponsorship that controls scientific results.
Not satisfying enough? The scientific community has another way of controlling the objectivity of scientific output. When a scientist wants to publish a study, he/she needs to declare “conflict of interest” to the scientific journal they want to publish in. Some journals even ask for potential conflict due to a partner’s job or affiliation. Most journals publish this declaration by the author in the paper. So, if in doubt when reading a news article about a research finding, you could search for the article and look up any conflicts of interest. Additionally, all published papers go through a rigorous process of peer-review. And believe me, scientific peers are not always your friends… Still not satisfied because researchers could lie? Yes, they could. But the scientific community is smaller than you may think. This will come out, eventually.
In my opinion, the scientific community is pretty bribe-free and self-regulating. However, there are always bad people. There may be few scientists in the world that are bribed and produce false findings. However, I think that if you want to get rich, there are many easier ways to do so than conducting science… Maybe try a pyramid scheme?