Opinion staff column

Everyday lies incentivized by funding sources

Research direction is too often shaped by industry funders’ profit motives

This piece originally appeared in the MIT Graduate Admissions student blogs and has been edited lightly.

My first experience with academic misinformation occurred during my junior year of college at the University of Texas at Austin. In my final project for my engineering ethics course, my group found that the Environmental Protection Agency’s initial report on the impact of hydraulic fracturing (commonly known as “fracking”) on drinking water lacked sufficient analyses to draw any firm conclusions. However, before we could present this finding, my university released its own fact-based report arguing that hydraulic fracturing did not impact water quality. Then, as my team scrambled to understand and incorporate this new information before the due date, news broke that a lead investigator of my university’s report was on the board of a fracking company and had hidden this conflict of interest.

As the semester wrapped up, we watched as the repercussions played out. An independent commission determined that the university study was not fact-based. The university retracted the report and removed the faculty member from his position heading the Energy Institute. I was astonished at how easily financial interests could compromise science, especially given our spot as the top petroleum engineering program in the country. For our class project, my classmate and I removed any reference to this discredited report that we had scrambled to incorporate.

A year later, I faced the decision of where to spend my next five years in graduate school. Gazing at my lengthy pros and cons list for each school, I overlooked how departmental funding sources could shape my research. And since arriving at my chosen school, I discovered the many subtle ways research money shapes both research direction and publicity.

Working on less important problems

Research money impacts what any university works on, and MIT is no exception. Sometimes MIT spends a lot of money focusing on low-impact problems because of who holds the purse strings. In my department, largely funded by industry, students often work to better understand long-standing problems in chemical, petroleum, or pharmaceutical manufacturing. These projects do not intend to solve major global issues like sustainability but instead increase the profits of the companies that fund them. If this type of research ends up improving people’s lives, it would likely be a side effect, not the primary goal.

Research funding also impacts what MIT does not work on. A 2017 report by MIT faculty argued that the Institute lacked faculty specializing in key areas for solving climate problems. Who is hired is directly impacted by availability of research grants, so decisions to accept certain grants working on company projects may have prevented the Institute from addressing some of the largest human challenges. Since the report was published, I have not heard of any improvements in the faculty hiring process that would help to tackle these large, systemic issues.

Deceptive publicity

While the fracking scandal from my undergrad experience clearly displays how blatant financial persuasion degrades science,  I have since noticed the smaller, but more prevalent, impacts money and research culture can have on disseminating the truth. In my department, we often explain our research motivation by its importance to society. I personally feel dishonest when explaining my work’s impact, since my research depends more on funding availability and my advisors’ expertise than societal impacts.

When listening to presentations in the department, I am frustrated when this ‘stretching of the truth’ starts containing completely false information, especially when this misinformation would benefit the private company sponsoring the research. This past semester, a presenter working on continuous pharmaceutical manufacturing, which was funded by a consortium of pharmaceutical companies, motivated his work by stating that it would lower U.S. drug prices. This was entirely misleading. Peer-reviewed analysis shows that pharmaceutical prices in the U.S. are not driven by manufacturing cost, and a Wikipedia list discussing methods to reduce drug prices in the U.S. does not even mention reducing manufacturing costs or speeding up manufacturing process development as potential solutions. By spreading false information regarding the best way to tackle health care issues in our country, this work prevents more effective actions being taken on drug pricing.

People look to top-ranked universities to do game-changing research. Providing false or deceptive information in talks and publications about our motivation misleads the public on what is important. If my university is improving corporate sponsors’ public image by perpetuating false information, I don’t want any part of it.

Ensuring that research has a positive impact requires large-scale institutional action, in which current graduate students can feel helpless. A prospective graduate student, however, has the power to evaluate where department funding is coming from and choose a program that focuses on solving pressing problems.

For those of us already in grad school, we can do something to prevent the spread of inaccurate information. When communicating our work, we should resist the urge to profess motivations that do not represent the reality of the project. If we do discuss potentially beneficial applications that indirectly motivate our work, we should present alternatives which could have a larger impact. And when false information appears alongside our university’s logo, it is our duty to speak up.