How Political Debate Can Affect Research Conduct

November 18th, 2008

Posted by: admin

Nature News reports (hat tip, Scientists and Engineers for America) on a study in PLoS Medicine describing how scientists have self-censored their work in response to a political debate. The specific political debate revolves around the criticism by a Congressman in 2003 that certain studies dealing with human sexuality sponsored by the NIH were not worthy of taxpayers dollars.  This member went so far as to propose an amendment to the NIH appropriations bill that was narrowly defeated.

The study describes survey and interview work involving researchers connected to the studies that were subject to debate.  Two primary outcomes of the work were that some of the researchers are no longer involved in that research, and others have changed language in subsequent grants to avoid so-called ‘red flag’ language.  In short, the debate was both muted and driven out of the open.

While there’s plenty of suspect conduct here, I’m reluctant to consider the specific case under consideration as inappropriate interference with science.  That funders of scientific research have some influence on what topics are researched is appropriate.  Federal mission agencies do this all the time.  But their specific preferences for research questions are determined and communicated in regular processes that are open and more transparent than a line item targeting specific studies in an appropriations bill.

Scientists and their supporters aren’t winning good conduct medals here either.  By avoiding debate over the value of their research, the actions of these scientists are suggesting that their peers can understand the value of their work, but the public cannot.  For publicly funded research this is both unacceptable and insulting.  For research in general, it perpetuates an unfortunate stereotype (an ivory lab, if you will), that does more harm than good for engagement with the public and with advocating for research priorities.

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