Ethics In Research Funding Research Paper

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The issue of ethics in research funding, a feature of research policy generally, is closely connected with the issue of freedom of research, an ideal of high standing in the science community. Special focus is on relations between providers and recipients of funding (see Orlans 1967). A vitally important principle says that research must be free in the sense of being shielded against any influences that may interfere with the obligation to seek truth. Yet, research must cope with regulation and restrictions, and discussions of these issues are concerned with questions of what freedom in which areas and with what consequences (Alver and Øyen 1997). The quest for freedom of research requires that conflicting and contradictory concerns and objectives be weighed against each other. In the process, the consideration of the policies, principles, procedures, and objectives of research funding often demands ethical reflection. Some principles of ethics seem self-evident. For example, no source of funding may be used to ‘buy’ a researcher to produce ‘right’ answers. Other issues require careful consideration—and there may be no clear-cut solution.

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1. Sources Of Ethical Concern

A sound process of research funding depends on organization and guiding principles. Research must meet standards of quality under conditions that favor innovation and contribute to knowledge accumulation. Research ought not to be done on problems that have already been solved and where sufficient knowledge exists. But who ought to organize and govern? The science community may favor the view that the researchers themselves are in the best position to face new challenges and play key roles in deciding what research objectives to pursue. Nevertheless, responsibility for research must be shared between several partners: political authorities, research councils, universities and other research agencies, and executors of concrete research tasks. Research is cost demanding and requires highly qualified personnel resources and efficient infrastructure services. Also, research involves risks to people and environment. Priorities have to be set independently of the aspirations of researchers, and particularistic ambitions require tempering in view of universalistic standards. Coordination is needed to secure teamwork or to assure that researchers in different locations contribute their share of a totality. Funding agencies must deal with such issues, often involving rivalry among research institutions, among representatives of disciplines or fields of specialization, and among individual researchers. All of these matters may evoke ethical concern. The main point is to assure sufficient freedom and autonomy, protect the research process against unnecessary control, and guard against interference having undue effect on conclusions.

Thus, a decision to fund research is a result of a process involving several actors and partners whose goals hardly ever are identical. Provider and recipient of funding are main partners, but they cannot relate to each other without considering the interests of the context from which they act. The funding agency cannot defy interests of its hinterland/or constituency, whether voters, taxpayers, or stockholders. The recipient of funding must relate to norms of scientific conduct, principles of data access and use, interests of institution of affiliation, and personal career interests and breadwinning needs. Ethical concerns become accentuated when different values and normative systems confront each another, and thus through the process of defining unified direction, seeking alignment of goals, and establishing common ground.

Traditionally, the institution of science asserts moral obligation to seek ‘knowledge for its own sake,’ without specific concern for applications. The ideal of basic or ‘pure’ research, driven by intellectual curiosity and awareness of missing links in the body of knowledge, plays a fundamental role in building and updating an integrated knowledge base. The universities have special responsibility for basic research and its integration in higher education. However, the mechanism whereby basic research is funded is going through significant changes as the role of research assumes new dimensions. Scientific discoveries accelerate change in society, but at the same time, scientific research becomes an instrument for solving problems brought about by change. Events during the twentieth century contributed to widespread distrust in knowledge as intrinsically good, and perceptions of evil consequences of scientific findings brought public opinion to hold that some discoveries ought not to have been made—and thus not funded. These and other circumstances create a demand for more control and more pronounced goal orientation. Some funding agencies routinely demand that even basic research be justified in terms of applicability. Then, as an increasing proportion of research funding goes to applied research, the goals, and subsequent utilization of findings, become matters for ethical evaluation.

Standards of applied research bear heavily upon criteria of assessing the merits of basic research. The science system demands investment priorities, coordination for optimal utilization of funding, efficiency, and a favorable cost–benefit ratio. In academia, the freedom to pursue theories challenging scientists’ imagination is under pressure from funding sources needing quick answers to urgent problems. But at the same time, large sectors of the science community are morally devoted to research on issues of environment, poverty, health, inequality, and political instability, to mention but a few critical themes.

2. Sources Of Research Funding

Funding for research comes from a multitude of sources. Governments channel public funds through foundations or research councils to individual researchers and to research establishments. Industrial corporations engage researchers as their employees or commission researchers on contract for particular research jobs. International organizations have special budgets for research. Private endowments and voluntary organizations provide funding for specialized research areas. The pluralism of research funding provides opportunities for research across an extensive array of issues and problems. Yet, there will always be concern that funds are skewed in favor of certain research goals at the expense of others. Not surprisingly, a host of ethically loaded questions concern funding priorities and processes of assuring optimal conditions for research.

2.1 Funding From Public Sources

Political authorities establish guidelines and policy principles for research, usually without entering into details of strategic decision making or interfering in the design of programs or projects. However, when investments in research are perceived as vitally important in view of political or national interests, funds may become earmarked for specific purposes. In rare instances, politicians address questions of whether certain disciplines are worthy recipients of funding from public sources, as in the recurrent debates in the US Senate about the place of social sciences in the National Science Foundation (Larsen 1992).

Generally, the science community has a strong hand in strategic decision making in research funding, as much authority is delegated by politicians to science foundations, research councils, and academies of sciences, where researchers influence policies, grant funds, and resolve ethical issues. However, their performance may be subject to evaluation by political authorities in terms of criteria of political expediency and objectives. The representatives of the science community may have to accommodate to demands from above, under threats of reduced flows of public funds. Within this contest area, the flow of public funds to basic research is particularly vulnerable, as evaluation tends to follow criteria of applied research.

Increasing internationalization of research requires attention to issues of compatibility across national boundaries of legal and ethical principles bearing on the use of public funds, as for example, privacy protection and confidentiality provisions. Standards of ethical conduct have been adopted by most professional organizations, while modern versions of globalization, internationalization, and interdisciplinarity of research bring up new issues needing continued attention. For example, when research funds transgress national boundaries, sensitive issues of sponsorship and of true or hidden agendas may stir up moral and political controversy, as in the case of ‘Project Camelot’ (see Horowitz and Katz 1975, Homan 1991).

2.2 Funding From Corporate Sources

In corporate funding, a corporation enters into a contract with a researcher or a research agency engaged to produce knowledge applicable for a defined purpose. Normally, a contract is preceded by negotiations to secure mutual rights and duties. It may not be possible to foresee all problems involving ethical aspects that may come up in the course of an investigation, but it is always helpful when potential sources of problems may be dealt with at the time of negotiating a contract. In applied research, the linkage of funding and spending often involves a certain urgency and a limited time horizon. While the funding source has an interest in attaining a useful research result quickly and efficiently, the investigator is eager not to sacrifice researcher rights. The investigator must relate to ethical principles adopted by the professional association and also wishes to clarify questions of ownership to research data and results, respect for rules of confidentiality, freedom to publish—and perhaps, freedom to have second thoughts about the results of an investigation. A funding source may want provisions for secrecy or first use, while the researcher is on guard against any clause that restricts truthful reporting. Other issues requiring clarification involve the funding agency’s participation in planning and execution of research, terms of monitoring a project while in progress, publicizing or utilizing partial information before the conclusion of a project, and terms of application of findings. Both parties in a contract negotiation must be acquainted with relevant legal provisions concerning intellectual property rights. Attention to ‘small print’ may require qualified advice, and researchers may be well served when the institution with which they are affiliated provides backing and takes part in contract negotiations.

3. Researcher Influence On Funding

Research policy formation as well as decision making in matters of concrete research tasks requires input from the science community. Science policy advice may be solicited or volunteered; in either case, the decision-making process invites attention from lobbyists and special-interest groups seeking influence on policies, budgets, and the allotment of funds. Although the process is regarded as necessary and legitimate, it may generate many ethical issues that concern political authorities, funding agencies, the science community, and the general public. It is assumed that those scientists who possess the highest professional competence within highly specialized fields are best qualified to serve as judges and gatekeepers for research programs and initiatives. However, as research plays an important role in the pursuit of social, economic, and political goals, the role of scientists in research funding, as policy advisors and as participants in the decision-making process, may to some appear too closely interconnected with the political process.

Furthermore, fair disbursement of research funds requires safeguarding against unfair delimitation of turf, undue promotion of special interests, and questionable manipulation of the research opportunities of friends and foes. Yet, measures to secure competence and impartiality ought not to lead to the paradoxical situation that researchers having specialized knowledge of an area have to recuse themselves from participating in evaluation and decision making within that area. In fact, the system needs mechanisms for the protection of the integrity of the science advisor.

4. Freedom, Market, And Control

Research has become closely linked to the solution of pressing problems encountered through rapid social change. At the same time, the possibilities of controlling research—and the desire to control—have become stronger. With increasing control, in a situation where research functions much like a market commodity, the center of gravity is shifting from basic to applied research. Increasingly, the firm linkage of research to practical utilization determines the criteria by which decisions to fund research are made. For the research community, there may be a price to pay in terms of freedom of research and standards of research. Surely, there will be more attention paid to the ethical issues surrounding decision making and policy formation in the area of research funding.


  1. Alver B G, Øyen Ø 1997 Forskningsetikk i forskerh erdag. Tano Aschehoug, Oslo, Norway
  2. Homan R 1991 The Ethics of Social Research. Longman, London
  3. Horowitz I L, Katz J E 1975 Social Science and Public Policy in the United States. Praeger, New York
  4. Larsen O N 1992 Milestones and Millstones: Social Science at the National Science Foundation, 1945–1991. Transaction, New Brunswick, NJ
  5. Orlans H 1967 Ethical problems in the relations of research sponsors and investigators. In: Sjoberg G (ed.) Ethics, Politics, and Social Research. Schenkman, Cambridge, MA, Chap. 1, pp. 3–24



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