23 Mar 2009, 4:26pm
General Science
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The Government Grant System: Inhibitor of Truth and Innovation?

Donald W. Miller, Jr. 2007. The Government Grant System: Inhibitor of Truth and Innovation? Journal of Information Ethics, 2007, pp 59-69.

Donald W. Miller, Jr., is a professor of surgery at the University of Washington School of Medicine. He received his M.D. degree from Harvard and did his cardiothoracic surgery residency at Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center. He has written two books on heart surgery and one, Heart in Hand, on the philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer, films of Woody Allen, and his life as a heart surgeon. He also writes articles for LewRockwell.com, which includes pieces on the importance of integrative medicine for maintaining optimum health.

Full text [here]

Selected Excerpts:


Flush with success in creating an atom bomb, the U.S. federal government decided it should start funding nonmilitary scientific research. A government report entitled “Science, the Endless Frontier” provides the justification for doing this. It makes the case that “science is the responsibility of government because new scientific knowledge vitally affects our health, our jobs, and our national security” (Bush, 1945). Accordingly, the government established a Research Grants Office in January 1946 to award grants for research in the biomedical and physical sciences. It received 800 grant applications that year. The Research Grants Office is now known as the Center for Scientific Review (CSR), and it processes applications submitted to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and other agencies in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). In 2005, CSR received 80,000 grant applications. …

Twenty-six federal granting agencies now manage 1,000 grant programs. Even clinical trials of drugs, vaccines, and devices, where industry may profit from the outcome, have come under the purview of government. Zarin and colleagues (2005) reviewed ClinicalTrials.gov records and found that the federal government currently funds 9,796 (51%) of the 19,355 interventional trials being conducted. Industry sponsors 4,734 (24%); and universities, foundations, and other organizations, 4,825 (25%). Under the current system scientists are expected to spend time drafting, writing, and refining unsolicited R01 grant applications, despite a less than one in ten chance of success.

Ethics of Writing Grant Proposals

Ethics in science and society “describe appropriate behavior according to contemporary standards” (Friedman, 1996). Two standards that scientists follow for writing grant proposals are 1) Keep it safe and survive, and 2) Don’t lie if you don’t have to. Pollack (2005) addresses the first ethic, noting that the paramount motivational factor for scientists today is the competition to survive. A scientist’s most pressing need, which supersedes the scientific pursuit of truth, is to get her grant funded—to pay her salary and that of her staff, to pay department bills, and to obtain academic promotion. The safest way to generate grants is to avoid any dissent from orthodoxy. Grant-review study sections whose members’ expertise and status are tied to the prevailing view do not welcome any challenge to it. A scientist who writes a grant proposal that dissents from the ruling paradigm will be left without a grant. Speaking for his fellow scientists Pollack writes, “We have evolved into a culture of obedient sycophants, bowing politely to the high priests of orthodoxy.” …

With regard to the second ethic, Albert Szent-Györgyi said, “I always tried to live up to Leo Szilard’s commandment, ‘Don’t lie if you don’t have to.’ I had to. I filled up pages with words and plans I know I would not follow. When I go home from my laboratory in the late afternoon, I often do not know what I am going to do the next day. I expect to think that up during the night. How could I tell them what I would do a year hence?” (qtd. in Moss, 1988, p. 217). This long-time cancer researcher, discoverer of vitamin C, and Nobel laureate was unable, despite multiple attempts, to obtain a government grant. Friedman (1996) describes a variant of this ethic where an investigator applies for a grant to do a study that he has already completed. With this grant awarded and money in hand he publishes the study and uses the funds on a different project. The misrepresentation enables the investigator to remain one project ahead of his funding. Apparently enough seasoned investigators do this that the academic community views the practice as sound “grantsmanship.”

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