Friday, July 6, 2012

What’s Wrong With Some Types of Sponsored Research?

           In various blog entries and publications I have expressed or implied my disapproval of certain kinds of sponsored research.  An author of such research recently chided me for using the term in this blog, because it can create an inappropriate tone perhaps implying illegitimacy of the work on its face.  The author suggested that branding my unsponsored research as ideological would cast a similarly inappropriate and unfair tone.

            I should clarify that I understand there to be two types of sponsored research: 1) financial support granted for a research proposal with no expectation that the output will support an already established outcome; and 2) financial support granted with the expressed or implied understanding that the output will support a sponsor-desired outcome.  In the former researchers are free to find the truth, but in the latter the primary goal is to support an outcome regardless of whether the output is true.  Sponsored researchers engaged in the latter will claim that the receipt of financial support in no way influenced the outcome of their work.  It just so happens that the findings and conclusions coincide with what the sponsor had in mind.

            I consider results-driven sponsored research as questionable, because the research does not pose and try to answer research questions without preconceived, desired outcomes.  Such research would not pass must with blind peer review where an expert, unknown to the authors and not knowing who the authors are, assesses the work product.  Peer review does not challenge the author’s ideology and preconceived notions, but instead assesses whether research findings are reproducible and plausible.

            Much of the sponsored research on telecommunications and Internet issues are financed with an eye toward influencing the policy making process.  But instead of being presented as advocacy documents, they are presented as pure research perhaps because such labeling confers greater credibility to the work product.  I have no problem with stakeholders funding advocacy documents that no one would confuse with research, particularly work having no desired outcomes.

            I have great problems with stakeholders using research to support a preordained outcome, particularly when the fact finder, e.g., the FCC, may be all too willing to treat the work product as pure research and heavily rely on it when making policies. 

Consider the recent instance where the large pharmaceutical firm Glaxo submitted research to support a drug’s safety, but later acknowledged that it removed findings that called into question the drug’s efficacy and safety.  Should Glaxo have the option of sponsoring research based on the view that the FDA would have the resources to conduct its own research, or at least to identify instances where the Glaxo research would not pass muster with peer review?  Should Glaxo have the option of deleting and not submitting any part of research that would hamper its goal of securing FDA approval?

            In any event I do not want to come across as a better researcher simply because I limit the types of financial support and grants I seek. I only assert that I do not have to deliver a particular work product.  I have the freedom to challenge the conventional wisdom and to identify instances where stakeholders are misrepresenting the truth as I understand it.

  Of course reasonable people can disagree on the truth. 

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