Objectivity, Probability, and Scholarship



I’m pausing from completing a faculty survey to offer a couple of quick thoughts on the following directive. I’m to register the degree to which I agree with the statement “Private funding sources often prevent researchers from being completely objective in the conduct of their work.” My options are “Agree Strongly, Agree Somewhat, Disagree Somewhat, and Disagree Strongly.” Three points:

1. My answer was “disagree strongly.” I’m pretty sure that money matters less in scholarship than it does in politics. Here’s Will Wilkinson discussing Tyler Cowen and Kevin Drum on the “money and politics” link. Obligatory disclosure: I supervise student programs funded by a grant from the Koch Foundation, and some of my professional travels have been paid for in part or in whole by the Koch Foundation and/or organizations they support. As I’ve written before, if I were looking to sell out, I would follow Arnold Kling’s advice and work for the government.

2. Speaking of which, there wasn’t a question about whether public funding corrupts scholarship.

3. The key word in the statement is “often.” My rule of thumb is that something happens “often” if it happens more than half the time. The percentage of privately-funded research projects that have been corrupt have is certainly not zero, but it’s almost certainly far less than 50%. I will be interested in seeing what fraction of my colleagues and compatriots answer this with some form of agreement based on the fact that it has happened before. Just because it is possible and just because it has happened before does not mean that it is probable.

My sense is that “economic impact studies” funded by industry lobbying groups aren’t worth the paper on which they are printed or the server space on which they are stored, and no doubt, some of these are corrupt. When compared to the body of scholarship that is funded by private money, however, I’m pretty sure corruption is relatively rare. As I wrote a few months ago, I think there’s a great project for an interested student somewhere.

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