Noise canceling headphones are quite expensive (up to 300 USD) compared to normal headphones, but can boost productivity by creating a sound isolation in noisy environments. Would it be ethically justifiable to buy those for non-research purpose (i.e., it's not needed for experiments)?

On one hand, I feel like good office furniture like chairs and desks are fully justifiable for the well-being and productivity of the research team members. But, this argument seems like a slippery slope, since I could also say that having a high-end espresso machine or special dark chocolate bars also could boost research productivity. In a corperate environment, I would have no problem in purchasing some of these, and I would consider them to be ethical, but in an academic environment, I find it difficult to find the ethical boundary since the funds are intended for research.

The fact that noise canceling headphones will likely be used for listening to music both while working on research and not, especially during travel, also adds to my ambivalence. But then research purpose laptops are also used this way often, and I don't have a problem with that.

EDIT: I'm not looking for alternate solutions. Just an ethical evaluation. It seems there's no real answer to this question. I appreciate everybody's response. I will choose the most balanced response as an answer but you should really read all the answers.

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    For what is worth, espresso machines and, at the very least, free coffee, tea, and chocolate are pretty much standard equipment in research labs in Sweden. Coffee is important here.
    – Davidmh
    Commented Nov 17, 2015 at 11:58
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    @FábioDias I don't think there's a hard boundary. How about "It is necessary to improve productivity by 3%". (numbers arbitrary)
    – Memming
    Commented Nov 17, 2015 at 12:16
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    @Memming Every place is different, but I wouldn't accept that if I was judging the expense report. Mostly because the agencies I consult for assume that the institution will provide basic infra-structure and I'd consider a proper working environment part of that. Personally, I don't put laptops in such budgets, because I don't use them only for work. I wouldn't charge headphones either, for me they are a personal item. Who gets it you leave the lab, for instance? Commented Nov 17, 2015 at 12:43
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    for us, this is from overhead Commented Nov 17, 2015 at 12:56
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    if "a math department is a machine that turns coffee into papers", seems like you'd want the best coffee possible. Commented Nov 17, 2015 at 20:13

12 Answers 12


Is it ethical to buy noise canceling headphones with research funds?

In an ideal world: yes. In the world we actually live in: in my opinion, no.

Here's my rationale. In an ideal world, people are honest and never abuse grant funds to purchase something that is not strictly needed for research, or make rationalizations for using grant money to buy something that could arguably improve productivity but also happens to be a cool electronic gadget that is fun to play with even when not working on research. In such a world, when a PI decides he/she needs to purchase noise-canceling headphones based on rational considerations that this is an effective use of grant money, this is a reasonable and ethical thing to do.

In our world, sadly, people do act out of dubious, self-deceiving and outright dishonest motivations all the time. Even the best among us are not completely immune from having our brains play tricks on us, telling us that some action we are considering taking can be justified on some ethical grounds X, when actually the real reason we want to take said action is Y, such that if Y rather than X were the stated motivation then the action would become pretty clearly unethical.

The bottom line: even if your contemplated purchase makes perfect sense for your students and lab, and even if you swear on your mother's soul that your motivation is pure as snow and you will never use the noise-canceling headphones for any recreational purpose, if we allow one PI to purchase $300 headphones we have to allow it for every PI, and I suspect 99% of the people who end up using that allowance will be doing so for the wrong reasons and with less-than-pure motivation in mind. In other words, allowing this will push the system in a harmful and possibly unsustainable direction (if we allow headphones, what about fancy stereos? Smart watches? Etc.). So, in the overall interest of encouraging an ethical use of taxpayer money, I think it makes sense to ask you to "sacrifice" the hypothetical "3%" productivity gains that you are citing as the justification for your purchase request. Personally, having myself managed to somehow be productive despite never owning noise-canceling headphones, I have a feeling you and your students will be just fine and will find a good alternative use for the $300.

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    Thank you for taking the time to write this response. :)
    – Memming
    Commented Nov 17, 2015 at 21:08
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    Despite being the accepted answer, I actually feel this does not answer the question that has been asked. The question was "should I as an individual PI consider it ethical to buy X", while you focus very strongly on "should a funding agency fund X". Those are to me very different questions. If I am your one PI who "with motivation pure as snow" can say that he would buy X for research purposes only (and the agency has allowed the purchase), then why does the fact that my motivation is not true for other people make my purchase unethical?
    – xLeitix
    Commented Nov 19, 2015 at 4:47
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    @xLeitix interesting point, but should the ethical question depend on one's point of view (i.e., PI versus funding agency)? My answer doesn't draw that distinction, it simply argues that the action of buying $300 headphones is unethical, for the reasons I mentioned. Therefore the funding agency should not allow it, and the PI should not do it even if it were allowed. (Also note that my comment about "push the system in a harmful and possibly unsustainable direction" addresses some of the reasons why even a PI acting out of pure motivation is stiill potentially causing harm.)
    – Dan Romik
    Commented Nov 19, 2015 at 5:41
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    If your only motivation is to block noise, then why wouldn't a simple pair of ear plugs suffice? They are just as effective and cost literally pennies. It would be hard to justify the cost of an expensive and ultimately luxury item when there is a simple cheap alternative. Commented Nov 19, 2015 at 12:08
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    You don't necessarily have to allow them to have $300 headphones because one needs it. Instead, you would (and should) have non-research equipment like this as part of a dedicated budget for these kinds of purchases. This way, when you do your budget, you can say that yes, we're allocating 0.5% of our budget to upgrading non-experiment technology like computers and peripherals. That's just responsible business.
    – corsiKa
    Commented Nov 20, 2015 at 20:46

Disclosure: we actually bought pretty expensive Bose Noise Cancelling headphones for our students recently, for the reasons you mentioned.

I think there is a very easy answer to this - will your funds cover the expenses if the purpose is reported truthfully, or will some "creative" cost reporting be required?

In the first case, I have a hard time seeing an ethical issue - as you say, equipment is equipment, and if whoever funds your research is ok with spending some of it on "potentially productivity-increasing even if ultimately not absolutely necessary" equipment, then why should you be ethically required to not make use of this option? The only case I would see where this would become an issue if you, for instance, would not actually be planning to be using the headphones much at all in the office, and are mainly looking to use them for a private purpose (but then again, if you wrote this in your expense report, whoever funds your research would probably not be ok with this expense anyway, making this more similar to the second case).

In the second case, it is pretty clearly not ethical to hack around whatever the criteria given out by your funding agency (e.g., pretending like you will need noise cancelling for a specific experiment so that it counts as costs for conducting a specific experiment rather than equipment costs, etc.).

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    A slightly different way of looking at roughly the same argument: “relevance to research” is a spectrum, not a binary distinction. The good headphones fall somewhere in the middle of this spectrum. Where your budget controller wants to draw the cutoff point will depend on how well-funded you are (and other aspects of institutional culture). So ask them honestly So the way to know whether this falls on the acceptable side is to ask them honestly.
    – PLL
    Commented Nov 17, 2015 at 13:53
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    Additionally, atleast at my institution, the professors have some of the funds in a fund that they have much more control over for more general purchases (such as desktops/labptops that will be used for a student's entire career). Putting headphones on a grant directly may be hard, but putting it into this account would be much easier. Commented Nov 17, 2015 at 17:54
  • @GodricSeer Yes, some sources are more flexible than others. But ultimately it is all the same: if your funding source (whatever it is) says whatever you want is reasonable use of money, I would consider it fair game.
    – xLeitix
    Commented Nov 17, 2015 at 18:12
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    This is a very good answer, but there's still a subtle flaw in your logic: you say "if your funding source [...] says whatever you want is reasonable use of money, I would consider it fair game." But what if the funding source is itself unethical? What if OP is in a corrupt country where grant officers would approve all kinds of questionable expenses without batting an eye? Or what if the OP's grant officer happens to be a person with questionable judgment? Etc. So, I agree the funding agency's view makes some difference, but that isn't necessarily a perfect way to decide this question.
    – Dan Romik
    Commented Nov 18, 2015 at 5:33
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    Regardless of how they came by the funds, they are the party providing them. If you're getting the funds from them, this means you have entered into an agreement with them already, meaning it would be odd to suddenly start objecting to where the funds came from. Ethical in this case should be assessed solely in the applicable context in this case, which means whatever the funding source says is ok is ethical. Whether it's ethical in the grand scheme of things is a different question but ultimately less relevant.
    – Cronax
    Commented Nov 18, 2015 at 8:43

I am aware of someone doing precisely this. Their office was quite open to a fairly active space, and being able to concentrate through the noise became a real issue. When this was bought up with the Administration, the solution proposed was to buy noise cancelling headphones for those affected.

They remain property of the university, the same as if they'd bought a computer, or anything else that enables them to do their research. There's not a lot of difference, in my opinion.

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    Except that you most definitely want clean pads when headphones change owners. To be honest you want a new keyboard and mouse too for permanent users - and these often aren't provided - but in a usage context headphones are more personal than a computer.
    – DetlevCM
    Commented Nov 17, 2015 at 16:54

If you're talking about a noisy/boisterous office environment...then I think that's a very difficult "sell." If you're talking about a researcher being in a research environment where there is sustained ambient noise above 85dB (for example, from the equipment being used or studied) then you have a fair measure of justification, especially if it's also required that the researcher needs to be able to hear things...skype calls, etc.


This question is in the grey area. I would say to ask someone above you (i.e. advisor), as you don't want to be responsible for doing this on your own. Also, you can bid for some cheaper ones on Ebay or what not. If your advisor is okay with it, you essentially then have a green light to do so, and if worse comes to worse, you are not solely responsible. Actually, I see that you are an Assistant Professor, so perhaps you can casually bring it up with the Chair? Maybe you can convince the department or institutional funding?

My main point is this, don't be solely responsible for doing something in the grey area. Just run it by somebody who is on top of you in whatever capacity, and go from there. I'm glad you're actually concerned about this though, that says a lot about you as a person.

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    Regarding cheaper headphones: I use a pair of $20 Sennheiser HD202's in the office. People have to tap me on the shoulder when they come to see me, because I can't hear them talking to me. Are you sure you need noise-canceling ones? Commented Nov 18, 2015 at 9:43
  • @semi-extrinsic I agree; the OP may overestimate what is needed. Pro hardware that is built to shut out noise levels of a concert hall are probably overkill. Decent earbuds or low- to middle-tier closed headphones are probably sufficient -- and way cheaper.
    – Raphael
    Commented Nov 21, 2015 at 11:13

I dont really see people addressing a simple answer, ask your administration. Most often your funding has some rules and your administration has their own rules.

It seems the justification of buying headphones is because it helps do the research. In that case, buying comfortable chairs also helps do the research. However, chairs are not allowed to be bought on research funding (in many cases) and must be purchased through the overhead funds the university keeps, which is exactly why they do that.

Similarly, there are posts on SE that discuss how even full computers can not be purchased on funding, and you must buy processors and components separately.


Anything could be ethically justified in the right situation. If the only research scientist that has the ability to unlock the science that provides a way to defeat the evil empire from destroying the universe is rendered incompetent unless availed of free prostitution services to liberate his imagination through sexual release, then free prostitutes would be a legitimate expense item in the budget. If saving the universe wasn't a legitimate goal of the research, providing free prostitutes would likely be construed as defrauding the funds provider and, depending upon the prevailing law, subject the funds administrator to criminal prosecution for violation of the funding terms or other laws.

So, when attempting to determine whether to buy something with earmarked funds, one should first run the purchase through a series of exclusionary gates:

  1. Determine what is formally approved in writing. If the funds are acquired through a grant directly from a federal government agency granter, the applicable rules regarding expenditures might be found in the terms attending the offering, the administrative code of the granter agency, and the Office of Management and Budget. If you want a horse's mouth answer, contact the entity that will audit the grant. Grant offerings can provide wide latitude in making expenses but take it from someone who has been there, the auditors, post expense, can deny the expense and backcharge the expense even when it appears to have been totally in compliance with the goals of the grant. Auditors, probably moreso when acting as a third party contractor for the granter agency, are likely to find at least one thing wrong with everything they audit so that it looks like they're doing their job. In other words, government auditors sometimes function like cops with a quota. The more an expense formally adheres to written guidelines, the less likely they'll declare it inappropriate. Novel interpretations of the rules that seem legitimate in light of the overall goal might be logically interpreted as appropriate by most everyone but are still more likely to be denied. Auditors don't enjoy much imagination when it comes to entertaining unique ways of interpretation, even when same is done in perfectly good faith and in the best interest of obtaining the outcome envisioned by the granter.

If the funds are from a government agency but funneled through another such as a state agency, then the state laws and administrative codes might have to be referenced as well. If the state law conflicts with the federal law, their exists potential for denying expenses as a result. Chargebacks are chargebacks regardless of whether your right or wrong in discharging your administrative duties.

  1. If the funds are provided in-house, consult up the chain of command for formal written guidelines and other guidance. There may be formal guidelines already in place and available to the institution's employees, contractors, and/or others who spend, administer, or invoice the institution's funds or those of it's funding sources. Once again, the auditors will likely be the final authority on what is considered appropriate. If they're guidance is available without rustling any feathers in the chain of command, it would likely provide the best source of information about how to make a decision. If you do contact them, you might be the first to ever take the time to do so so don't be surprised if they're surprised at your call. Also, if you discover that NOBODY really has an idea about the policy, including the auditors, then document that as well so that you can show that you made a good faith effort to discover the truth. The risk is that if you dig too deeply and find that NOBODY is doing it right, you might make some of the higher up incompetents uncomfortable with your questions. You'll have to use your own judgment about whether it's safe to poke around the place with questions that could make somebody look bad.

  2. Take it from someone who knows, any item that has utility outside the work environment is more likely to eventually come up missing. Employees tend to take things home with them to work after hours, an admirable behavior when done in compliance with the rules. Same tend to forget to bring things back to work sometimes, a less admirable behavior. The more utility the item has outside the workplace, and the more expensive the item is, the more likely it is to become lost in the name of enhancing productivity.

  3. When in doubt, err on the side of caution, or not. I remember Bill Gates missing an important speaking engagement because he got stuck in a traffic jam. The blame was rolled downhill to those attending to the details of delivering him to same on time. They were chastised by the higher ups for not renting a jet helicopter to fetch him out of the traffic jam and ensure his timely arrival at the speaking engagement. Likely, had Gates managed to barely arrive on time by ground transportation, anyone suggesting wild spending on a helicopter to avert a potential disaster would have been chastised as financially irresponsible. If the research is successful, expenses will more likely be viewed as appropriate. If unsuccessful, you might be called onto the carpet for buying rubber bands. Only you have a feel for the terrain in your particular situation so you might have to go on instinct, but then again, that's why you make the big bucks, right? Just remember to document your good logic for the expenditure so that your ready for a fight if it is called into question. If your prepared to defend it, any expenditure has a better chance of approval than one that you are at a loss for words to explain. If you rely on the assertions of others to justify the expenditure, document who they are, what they said, and when. If it's a career life or death, you might even tape record it, if and when legal to do so. When it hits the fan, people that told you it was ok to do it the wrong way will forget they ever had a conversation with you, assuming they remember you at all.

  • There may be formal guidelines already in place and available to the companies employees. The OP specificly asked about in an academic environment.
    – Nobody
    Commented Nov 18, 2015 at 5:58
  • you might even tape record it, if and when legal to do so The question is Is it ethical ... Why would you need to use a tape recorder?
    – Nobody
    Commented Nov 18, 2015 at 6:49
  • If you rely on the oral representations of others in lieu of signed written representations, it's your word against their word if they later deny having said what they said to avoid blame. Granted, tape recording provides the appearance of paranoia but better to be perceived as paranoid than unemployed because your boss told you to do it wrong and then denies it during the inquisition.
    – Ed Would
    Commented Nov 18, 2015 at 7:00
  • Whether it is ethical relies on your consciousness, not your boss' words.
    – Nobody
    Commented Nov 18, 2015 at 7:08
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    My assumption is that the author wasn't requesting an absolute yes|no response to a question regarding ethics. I interpreted his question as eliciting opinions about whether the purchase would be perceived as ethical or not and why. Absent an absolute moral authority with whom everyone agrees is the absolute authority, answering questions of ethics with absolute yes|no responses is impossible, imho. Those with deeply held religious convictions might feel differently.
    – Ed Would
    Commented Nov 18, 2015 at 7:15

Let me answer this question by asking you another question.

Is it ethical to pay for a much more expensive private office with research funds because you're much more efficient in such a private and more quiet office environment?

Of course, it is. As long as your budget is large enough, and there is no fine print that explicitly forbids it, there shouldn't be a problem with that.

In fact, these kinds of decisions are made all the time in academia.

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    Really, are you saying that any behavior that is not expressly forbidden by the "fine print" is ethical? If that's what you're saying, you're conflating ethics with legality. And if that's not what you're saying, then you need to explain why in this particular case the two notions do equate with each other.
    – Dan Romik
    Commented Nov 18, 2015 at 5:26
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    Where did that quantifier "any" come from? How can "any" major expense improve efficiency? Is that what you're implying I said? As to the fine print and the budget size, those are not necessarily legal requirements. In my mind, if a research project fails because you weren't careful with expenses. That has to enter into consideration as well. Or if the donating agency has multiple goals and specifies that you should spend the money only in a certain way while conducting your research. I believe that should play a factor into the decision as well, whether it's a legal requirement or not. Commented Nov 18, 2015 at 6:14

Noise canceling headphones do not work well in all circumstances. The active noise cancelling mostly works well with low frequencies like various engines or compressors running nearby. If you are doing a complex experiment in such environment, they are definitely worth buying as distraction from such noise may be very significant. I have carried some experiments with the cooling systems nearby being so loud I could barely talk to my partner. Using protection is such cases is unlikely to be unethical.

In a normal laboratory or office environment too big part of the distracting noise comes from the higher frequencies and the headphones will not help much. I have tried to use such headphones in an office environment with just too many people talking around, they were near useless. Hence buying them will not make any sense.

  • Does the effectiveness of the product have an impact on the ethics of the purchase?
    – corsiKa
    Commented Nov 21, 2015 at 20:09
  • I think yes, it does have the major impact. The headphones are ethical where, as I said, they are useful. Commented Nov 21, 2015 at 21:11

I'd say, people have different sensory sensitivity. I for one have sensory over-stimulation and am very sensitive on hearing or handle large open areas with people for very long. So I always use noise-cancelling headphones - it makes work and life more manageable.

What I mean is, what does it matter if you use it only at work or also for recreation? If you have nothing for recreation then you won't be very enthusiastic at work either in the long run (I know what lack of spare-time for recreation leads to). So, in my opinion is is great that one device (noise-cancelling headphones) can help with both noise at work and for recreation. A happy employee is probably a more productive and creative employee.

Should the money be spent on this or that is always the question, but as always it is also a matter of prioritization. If you feel that such headphones are what feels like it will really make a difference for your research then yes that is probably what you should try to get hold of next.

Perhaps you can make a deal such that you pay half and employer pays half and then you will use them for work but you can also use them at home for recreation.

  • A happy employee is probably a more productive and creative employee. This argument (mentioned in many of the answers) opens the way to using research funds for all sorts of things, e.g., tropical vacations, going to the movies, eating out at fancy restaurants, etc. A good answer claiming that noise-canceling headphones are okay must therefore explain what is it about this particular $300 item that makes it different from all the above examples. The noise issue is such an argument, but since others have pointed out you can achieve the same effect with cheap earplugs, I'm still not convinced.
    – Dan Romik
    Commented Nov 22, 2015 at 10:01
  • @DanRomik Well, if that would not be true we would not have vacations, recreational activities or short breaks at work. Of course /everything has its limit/. I am not talking about unlimited vacations and watching movies all day instead of working. I talk about the greatness of items which for one price provide both features - noise cancellation at work and the very same + listening to music at home using the very same headphones. Also, the effect is NOT similar AT ALL as to what can be achieved with non-noise-cancelling-earphone plugs. I bought BOSE QuietComfort 3 headphones a month ago and> Commented Nov 23, 2015 at 7:35
  • @DanRomik > Wow, it makes such a difference. No they do not block speech or such (except for what you can achieve with usual headphones), but they do block (very well) ventilation, computer fans, car traffic, all sorts of infra-sounds. So if you sit in a room with traffic outside your window, have computer fans in your vicinity (at summer a noisy cooling fan or AC) etc then they're worth their weight gold. I can only relate to my own expercience of course but before I tried out noise-cancellation I /never/ thought it was so good. Once I tried, it took me two weeks before I had ones of my own. Commented Nov 23, 2015 at 7:41
  • @DanRomik But as I wrote, everyone has got different sensory sensitivity, and all I can recommend for this particular case to go try some /good/ (yes, there is a reason why the BOSE QuietComfort are considered one of the best at this point) noise cancellation headphones. Also as I wrote, I do not see a problem with a device which can be useful /both/ at work and at home at the same time. We have free cell phones for work and are allowed to use them for personal use as well. Also since it is flat-rate anyway it doesn't matter what calls we make - work related at work, and personal at home. Commented Nov 23, 2015 at 7:46
  • Also I should add that I am not talking about using them primarily for playing music so loud that all external noise is overshadowed. I am talking about just turning on the headphone's noise-cancellation with no music or anything else for everyday use. It just produced silence for your ears and it is amazing. Commented Nov 23, 2015 at 13:35

Let me answer your question in an extreme case:

Some labs purchase this type of headphones, at high prices probably. Because they can't do work without it. Their experiments require a step of long time sonication which is really harmful to human ears. Therefore, researchers in order to protect themselves have to wear these headphones just like how people wear gloves. I guess my example can avoid the ethical controversies, even if some people do use it to concentrate on work while they propose to buy it for the sake of protection against sonication noise. And that's how some labs use their money, whether you like it or not.

Current situation is that a lot of labs and institutes can find a lot of reasonable proposals to get what they need, though, for another project.

And, sadly, that's how labs run sometimes: you use your current excuses/publications to ask for what you need for another unrelated project, the result of which will in turn be used to get funding for another one.

If someone else were standing in your shoes, they could probably get the headphone in the name of sonication, and do good work, and produce more scientific values than the headphone they asked for.


Think of it this way:

Suppose you were to ask for noise insulation / dampening for the lab / group office. That might cost $1,000, or $5,000 (I have no idea how much). Would you have any ethical doubts about asking for that? Well, you might, but only for one reason:

Is reducing the ambient noise level for my research activity important enough for the university / the human race to invest in?

If the answer is "yes", then noise cancelling earphones seem ethically appropriate. The fact that you can also use them to enjoy research-unrelated activities is no more than cause for carefully scrutinizing your request to make sure it's legit.

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