The word “public” casts a certain magic. Through a strange alchemy, the word purifies any given action. What would be criminal if done privately somehow becomes virtuous if done for or by “the public.”
Take taxes for example. If you went over to your neighbors house, took his money by force, and attempted to justify it by providing a “service” he never asked you to perform, you’d rightfully end up in jail. Yet, in the name of “the public,” the same government that would jail you commits the same crime everyday.
Not only can the word “public” legitimize crime, it can magically alleviate the burdens of human nature. Dealing with private entities, the buyer must beware. Not so with government, we’re told. Anything done in the name of the public can be trusted implicitly.
We can see this rhetorical phenomenon play out in the public university system, where taxpayer dollars mingle with private funds to enable scientific research. As federal funds toward that purpose grow more scarce, hands wring at the University of Minnesota as stakeholders wonder whether private influence will corrupt the scientific process. The Minneapolis Star Tribune reports:
…privately sponsored research is more likely to raise questions about conflicts of interest, as it did when one lab found that 3M chemical workers were not at a higher risk of developing cancer. The $450,000 study was paid for by 3M.
Surely, public funding of such research would ensure its unwavering authenticity, right? Let’s consider.
Playful sarcasm notwithstanding, there is nothing magical about the word “public.” The implication of the public/private comparison in research funding is that conflicts of interest only occur in the private sector. Public employees, public servants, public institutions, public entities of all sorts are inherently immune to ulterior motive, we’re meant to believe.
Yet, despite their differences, public entities retain a defining characteristic with their private counterparts – human nature. People are self-serving, prioritizing their needs and the needs of their loved ones above those of others. This does not change when someone goes to work for a public university or government agency. What changes is the methodology by which such interests are served.
In the private sector, the methodology is consent. A seller must convince a buyer that a transaction presents mutual benefit. In the public sector, the methodology is conquest. The politically powerful gang up on the politically weak to seize property and compel service. That is why, as the Star Tribune notes:
Private sources will never match the scale of funding from taxpayers, who paid for about 74 percent of the U’s research expenditures through agencies like the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation…
Conquest out-loots consent every time. Conquest also circumvents the inconvenience of having to convince investors of a project’s merit:
Private sources may also be less patient than federal agencies, which can have a profound impact on the fate of major research initiatives.
In 2009, the U ramped up a research program on Type 1 diabetes based on a pledge of “up to $40 million” from the family of Richard Schulze, the billionaire founder of Best Buy. But after the U spent $22.8 million, the foundation grew impatient at the slow pace of discovery and withdrew additional funding.
Yes, private entities expect a return on investment. Weird thing that.
Why shouldn’t they? What’s the alternative? Should private entities mindlessly cough up funding for projects which prove fruitless?
For those who answer “yes,” of which there are many, their alternative is force. Put a gun to people’s heads, take their money, give it to research, for “the common good.” After all, we can’t have private entities corrupting the agenda.
“As federal dollars get harder and harder to obtain, I think people are increasingly dependent on the private sector,” said Charles Nelson, a Harvard University pediatrics professor who formerly worked at the U. He said he has no quarrel with private funding — provided that researchers disclose any conflicts and remain free to publish their findings in peer-reviewed publications.
But there is a broader concern, he said: “Will this increasingly lead to a narrowing of the research scope?”
Yes, it will. When private entities are paying the bills, the scope will tend to be limited to productive pursuits, things which advance the happiness of those investing.
Think of the question in another context. Imagine, instead of a pediatrics professor, we were dealing with an adult living at home with his parents. Will moving out, paying his own rent and doing his own laundry, lead to a narrowing of his lifestyle scope? Yep. It certainly will. That’s not a problem.
Like too many adult children among us, the question of where money comes from doesn’t inform the consideration of most public research stakeholders. Morally, research scope should be defined by consent, because the only alternative is force.
More to the point regarding conflict of interest, public funding and the control that comes with it proves inherently corrupting of the scientific process. At least when 3M funds research that makes 3M look good, we can put two and two together. The motives behind government funding, on the other hand, are obscured beyond politics.
Consider the ongoing climate change debate. Term like “green” and “sustainable” have become the new “low-fat” or “all natural,” marketing catch phrases used to sell products and services. Public research institutions, hungry for that 74% of their funding that comes from government, perpetuate a compelling reason for more funding. Government, in turn, benefits from the propagation of a vague and imminent crisis requiring larger budgets and ever expanding power. It’s cyclical, a perpetual machine fed by loot and the loss of liberty. How are public research stakeholders any less driven by profit than a private company?
The ultimate check against conflicts of interest in science is the scientific method itself. If 3M-funded research finds that 3M is awesome, that’s not “science” until independently verified by other parties. We don’t need government to tell us which claims are credible or incredible. We only need government to ensure that individuals remain free to apply their own judgment to all forms of human endeavor.