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I am a PhD student in a program where everyone is funded by the department by default, generally through teach, but many students are sometimes funded their advisor. The upside to being funded by your advisor is basically that you don't have to teach, and funding after 5 years isn't guaranteed anymore.

I work in STEM and many people in my field get funding from the NSA, DOD, DHS, or other military groups. I personally would not feel comfortable accepting money that comes from such sources, due to my personal ethics. I am unsure of where my advisors funding comes from, this being the issue.

How do I politely bring up this issue with my advisor? It is important to me but I have a good relationship with my advisor and I don't want to seem ungrateful or like I'm criticizing them.

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  • Has your advisor actually offered to fund you?
    – Dan Romik
    Dec 4 '21 at 0:33
  • Yes, and has done so in the past, and will so do in the future when he has enough for all his students and it's "my turn to get a semester off".
    – guest171
    Dec 4 '21 at 0:36
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    That’s useful information, thanks. You may want to edit that into the question.
    – Dan Romik
    Dec 4 '21 at 0:38
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    The agencies you listed very likely have publicly searchable databases of grants they’re funding. If you are really conflict-averse you can simply search there for your adviser’s name. But it seems simplest just to ask your advisor directly and mention your ethical qualms. That also creates an opportunity for dialogue, which might lead you (or him) to change how you look at the issue.
    – Dan Romik
    Dec 4 '21 at 0:42
  • Those agencies don't generate money. The funding they distribute comes from taxpayers, like you. Dec 4 '21 at 20:02
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You can look at recent papers of your advisor in your general idea: usually the funding is acknowledged somewhere in the paper (often at the end).

Now you want to be careful about your interpretation of this source of funding. Various agencies fund a lot of research that you may disagree with, but also a lot of research that you may agree with. For instance, armed forces may fund research is prosthetics, mental health, and other areas clearly of value to them but also to society at large.

I would argue that the real question is if you are comfortable with your work rather than who funds your work. Would you be comfortable working on face recognition technology if it were funded by a private entity rather than some military or quasi-military agency?

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  • I don’t think OP was asking for debates about what “the real question is”, or about whether their ethical beliefs are reasonable. The question being asked is pretty clear. (To be fair, I’ve been known to challenge the premises behind a question, so I see where you’re coming from, but just saying…)
    – Dan Romik
    Dec 4 '21 at 17:39
  • @DanRomik the first part deals (indirectly) with the question. I have challenged this premise myself (based on personal experiences). Dec 4 '21 at 19:29
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First, you can just ask casually about his/her grants. There's nothing wrong about healthy curiosity. After all, you are pursuing a career in academia, part of which will be securing funding, so such an interest on your part is very natural. You don't even need to tell them where you are coming from, and if it turns out that the sources are kosher, that's it.

The second option would be just to talk upfront: you thought a lot about ethical issues and concluded that you are uncomfortable taking money from the military if it can be reasonably avoided. Focus on this as your resolution of a complex ethical dilemma, and convey that you understand that others could well resolve it differently.

A reasonable advisor should understand. It's a bit like you are vegan at a family dinner: your mom might think that you not eating spare ribs is ungrateful or criticizing, but then you have a larger problem than a family dinner :). Healty advisor - student relation assume that you trust each other enough to discuss such matters honestly and with respect.

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  • +1 You don't necessarily need to start the conversation by talking about grants. If you're in a field where research has military implications, you could reasonably discuss the ethics of that with your supervisor. This might lead on to talking about money; even if it doesn't you will have laid some groundwork for asking questions if and when the supervisor offers you cash.
    – avid
    Dec 4 '21 at 17:02
  • Really, asking about the source of funding means you do know a little about how academia works, and far from "nothing wrong with," it's a plus! Dec 4 '21 at 19:35

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