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I'm asking this question in the context of purely publicly-funded academic research, which might perhaps make answers rather straightforward.

So, I wonder to what extent the outcome of a scientific investigation, a research activity, could be unnecessarily biased or influenced in an undesired way if overarching interests of any kind (e.g. political, commercial, personal/social, etc.) are in the way of the process. Sure, the scientific method might prevent such biases to a good extent. However, should the mere choice of research questions and hypotheses along the way, the research strategy so to say, be protected from such influences? For instance, should we deny questions such as "Is this relevant for current industrial practice?" or "Does this relate to a currently hot practical problem in the way practitioners view it?".

My current view goes in the direction that the aforementioned interests should not only be declared (which is mandatory anyway) but be assured to not influence academic research as good as possible.

My question is somewhat philosophical and, having found that question, I was unsure whether or not to ask it here. Yet, public funding agencies and universities have gotten rather pushy about telling researchers to address relatively short-term practical problems (not least because of attracting third-party funding from sources typically associated with quite focused interests). Hence, I believe, a plurality of answers to this question could be useful for others. Answers that go beyond a "yes or no"-nature and discuss the "how can ... be kept free of ..."-variant of the above question are much appreciated.

(I'm happy with closing the question again if folks feel this to be a non-SE question.)

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  • If you want research to be totally divorced from society at large, then don't take funding from society.
    – Jon Custer
    Commented Jun 2, 2023 at 13:41
  • I can't imagine any research done by a human to be free of non-scientific interests. Indeed, I don't even know what it would mean to be free of non-scientific interests. Science is a human activity done by scientists that is of course influenced by (and influences) the life of those scientists. Commented Jun 3, 2023 at 3:35
  • @AlexanderWoo I think, I know what you mean. Well, my question was perhaps more pragmatic in the sense: If my boss tells me to shape my questions according to what industry needs now, I'd like to say: Hold on, let's not focus too much on what they need now and see what we can find more generally, which might eventually be of interest to them even more. My experience is that such constraints unnecessarily limit the search for sustainable solutions to general problems.
    – mfg
    Commented Jun 3, 2023 at 8:16

2 Answers 2

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In a democracy public funding and conditions attached to public funding are determined by the people (usually indirectly through elections of politicians). That is as it should be.

There is a good case to be made for funding fundamental research, i.e. research that does not have an immediate application. But it is also a trade-off: any euro/dollar/yen/hryvnia spent on research is a euro/dollar/yen/hryvnia not spent on better childcare, better healthcare, better roads, better bombshelters. It is ultimately up to the democratically elected officials to make that trade-off.

It is our job to make the case for fundamental research as good and as clear as possible, but also to accept democratically made decisions.

So a certain amount of political influence is unavoidable and desirable if you take public funding. If the politicians decide that certain topics are a priority and direct extra funding to that, then we may or may not agree but it is the politicians job to make such decisions.

That does not mean that all political influence is OK. It is for example not OK if politicians currently in power abuse their position to gain an unfair advantage over the opposition. It is not OK if they dictate what acceptable conclusions from your research should be (if you know the conclusions of your research before doing it, then it isn't research).

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Generally it does not need to be free of non-scientific interests, but funding systems are actually designed to hold things apart.

In many countries with good research funding, there are two general types of funding schemes that are both financed by public money: bottom-up and top-down funding.

Bottom-up funding is typically handled by an institution that is relatively free of political influence but gets a defined budget from policymakers. They distribute their budget to project applications without constraints regarding the topic of the research, and the evaluation is typically completely handled by the research community as well. An example of such a funding organization in Europe is the European Research Council. One can probably say that bottom-up funding is organized to be mostly free of non-scientific interests.

In top-down funding, policymakers define a research topic based on a perceived societal need and start a funding program for that. Researchers can apply with projects, but of course they will need to argue in their application how the project will address the defined topic. This type of research funding is typically handled by ministries or other agencies engaged by policymakers, and in that way policymakers can usually retain a good degree of influence on the evaluation process.

In any case, there are good arguments for having both types of funding, and I think it is well accepted that society indeed needs both types of research funding. The relevant question is then which share of the public research money should go to which type of funding. Academic researchers would probably prefer to have a larger share in bottom-up funding (unless their field is expected to get a lot of top-down funding), while other stakeholders might prefer more top-down funding, but in the end this needs to be decided by a policital process.

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  • Thanks, I like your concluding question.
    – mfg
    Commented Jun 3, 2023 at 8:22

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