A Perspective on Bias and Industry Funded Research
I have been a faculty member for about eleven years. In that time, I have been lucky enough to receive approximately $3 million in research funding. That has allowed me to do a wide variety of research. The amount is small compared to some in other disciplines and substantial compared to others. It has been a critical part of doing the work that I do. The money has come from industry, government, and charitable foundations. I have always been open about my sources of funding. I have never felt any pressure from anyone to direct my results in one direction or another. I have had full academic freedom to pursue the research and to present the findings as I found them.
One thing that funding allows you to do is to pursue interesting projects that might be beyond the scope of the specific funded project. Funding provides the money to keep the gears turning. It allows you to dive deep into and industry or an issue. This allows you to explore other related issues that might not otherwise get funded. I explore them because they are interesting. I explore them because they are often under-researched and are of broader interest.
I have recently been disappointed at the tenor of some criticism of myself and other colleagues. I am happy to accept criticism – a spirited discussion of different perspectives can provide a deeper understanding of the issue – its part of academic life. What I think is unfair is an accusation of bias based on funded research. This type of thing is happening far too much in the broader public discourse but is creeping into academic discourse as well.
These sorts of accusations create an unsubstantiated perception of bias. Don’t get me wrong, we all come to any issue with some biases. If we do good research, we can mitigate the impact of those biases but when we speak on broader issues, particularly but not limited to policy, we are, in some cases, providing an opinion. That may well be an informed opinion, but it is nonetheless and opinion. There are examples of misconduct in which researchers have misrepresented results or skewed them in favour of a funder. These occurrences are, in my experience, extremely rare and the vast majority (and I mean overwhelming) of academics are not skewing results or making statements in support of funders. They are providing and informed perspective on the questions raised.
I’ve had several instances in which I have been accused of being a shill for an industry. The most recent was during the “Buttergate” discussion. I raised questions about the rush to judgement and the lack of evidence of an issue. I was accused of being funded by the dairy industry. In the past I have spoken about supply management, highlighting that I think it is neither as good nor as bad as many defenders and critics suggest. I’ve also argued that there has been insufficient research to support positions on either side of the argument. These statements also led to accusations of bias.
Its worth noting that I have received about $30,000 in unrestricted funding from the dairy industry during my career – less than 1% of my total research dollars. It is also worth noting that I have been criticized by supporters of dairy as being anti-dairy in both my “Buttergate” and supply management comments. I have spoken with several senior colleagues in the sciences, and none have ever been asked not to release or publish unfavourable results. It likely does happen, but it is not pervasive. We also know that this is not unique to industry funded projects. Some governments have also suppressed research findings that were not consistent with their policy directions.
There are very real and valid differences of opinion on these and other issues. There are groups that are opposed to supply management. Does money from those groups create bias and preclude comment? Where is the line drawn to allow for “unbiased” perspective on an issue?
A friend of mine (who is an academic) grew up on a dairy farm and his brother still runs it. Does that preclude him commenting on the dairy industry or supply management?
Another friend of mine (another academic) is a part owner of a hotel and restaurant. Restaurants Canada has been a vocal critic of supply management. Does that preclude him from providing an unbiased perspective against supply management?
We run a very real risk of creating a disincentive for people with the best-informed perspectives to participate in these discussions. That means we lose important perspectives. People who do research in an area have a deep understanding of the issues and the industry. Yes, we need to be aware of bias but we need to understand that there is bias on both sides of most issues. Baselessly raising bias as an issue in those that disagree with you also means we run that risk we create greater doubt about any academic perspective is unbiased. That is to all of our detriment – not just academics.
The reality is that public sources and amounts of funding have been declining (or at least holding steady while costs increase). This is likely to get worse given some of the spending during the pandemic. Researchers need to cast a broader net for funding, which will include industry funding sources. These dollars don’t just fund research, but also train the next generation of research scientists.
If your best argument is that the other person is biased, then you don’t have a strong enough argument. Present your perspectives based on research and what you’ve learned and let your argument succeed on its own merit. We should be open about any funding. That includes not just when we defend an industry or perspective but also when we attack it. Accusing others of bias because of funding without saying where your own funding comes from is disingenuous at best and deceitful at worst. We can and should do better.
Recommended citation format: von Massow, M. "A Perspective on Bias and Industry Funded Research". Food Focus Guelph (113), Department of Food, Agricultural and Resource Economics, University of Guelph, May 10, 2021.