Funders

From The Embassy of Good Science

Funders

What is this about?

Funding for research comes from many sources, including from universities, industry, philantrophists and research funding organizations (RFOs). RFOs are the financiers of many research projects and provide grants to research projects, collaborations and individual researchers. The responsibility for ensuring that the funds and resources are utilized optimally without any misconduct lies with researchers, research performing organizations, ethics committees, and the funding organizations. This calls for the development of a code for appropriate utilization of funds, and to ensure academic autonomy, integrity, freedom and the rights of scholars in academic–industry relationships.

Why is this important?

Financial support for research is often obtained from intramural (e.g. from university funds) or extramural (e.g. from funding agencies) sources. Funders have some responsibility for ensuring that the research they fund is conducted in accordance with relevant laws and good research practices. However, funders’ oversight and reporting standards differ greatly.

Collaborations, particularly those related to funding, also have the potential to influence the ways in which research questions are defined and the results presented. A particular concern involves collaborations between academia and industry-sponsors. Studies have shown that industry-sponsored research tends to favor the sponsor.[1] Therefore, funders need to be transparant about their aims, researchers should declare the source of funding, academic autonomy must be ensured, and researchers must be aware that funders can potentially influence research.

  1. Lundh, A., Lexchin, J., Mintzes, B., Schroll, J. B., & Bero, L. (2017). Industry sponsorship and research outcome. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, (2).

For whom is this important?

What are the best practices?

Funders and research ethics

Reporting standards and ethics regulations vary between funding organizations. The European Commission has developed an elaborate procedure for ensuring that funded projects satisfy ethical requirements. In order to complete one´s application for funding within Horizon 2020, one must fill out an extensive ethics self-assessment. All projects that qualify for funding are subject to an ethics review procedure. The outcome of the ethical committee can influence the requirements funders have for the study. If ethical issues are judged to be particularly severe or complex, certain monitoring procedures may be required, such as engaging an ethics advisor or an ethics board within the project.

The Missenden Code of Practice for Ethics and Accountability[1] was drawn up to promote ethical research in British universities in the face of growing pressure from industry and private funders. The Missenden code identifies eight difficulties that some universities have encountered through their collaborations with industry: i) Safeguarding Academic Freedom; ii) Tasking an ‘Ethics Committee’; iii) Defending the Academic’s Right to Publish; iv) Protecting Intellectual Property Rights; v) Meeting the Student Expectation; vi) Preparing for Controversy; vii) Managing the New Model University; viii) Sourcing Alternative Funding. The code addresses each one of the difficulties using case studies, and makes 14 suggestions to help universities respond to the development of commercial funding of university research.

Funders and research integrity

The current climate for research funding is highly competitive. Many high-quality grant applications are rejected. Research shows that ‘high ranked’ institutions in the US were 65% more likely to succesfully receive grants, and received 50% more awards.[2] At the same time, lower ranked institutions had a higher impact with the research they performed.[2][3] This finding may be indicative of funding bias. Moreoever, a highly competitive funding climate can feed perverse incentives. On the one hand, funders rely on assessment criteria, which include publication records and journal impact factors. As a result, researchers may strive to get as many papers published as possible without due care for the integrity of their research. On the other hand, researchers may feel the need to exagarate the expected impact of the proposed research or exagarate their skills and qualitifications.

Nontheless, RFO’s can implement policies fostering research integrity. For example, the Wellcome Trust in the UK provides a ‘transition support fund’ for PhD students. [4]The fund can be used after the completion of a PhD project, and the student can decide how they want to further their career by using the fund as they see fit. The fund can be used, for instance, to write another paper or to do an internship.

RFOs can also develop initiatives to combat perverse incentives. For instance, many funders have signed the San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment, or DORA.[5] The declaration’s aim is to reduce the use of journal impact factors in funding evaluations.  Instead, other indicators, such as altmetrics, should be used. Implementing DORA in reviewing grant proposals can mean evaluating a researcher by asking about their most important publication, the impact of their previous research, and their other qualifications besides publications. [6]

  1. The Missenden Code of Practice for Ethics and Accountability: The Commercialisation of research in Universities: an Ethical Intervention. http://www.missendencentre.co.uk/Ethics_report.pdf . Accessed June 2019
  2. 2.0 2.1 Wahls, W. P. (2018). High cost of bias: Diminishing marginal returns on NIH grant funding to institutions. BioRxiv, 367847.
  3. Callier, V. (2018) Research Dollars Go Farther at Less-Prestiguous Institutions: Study. The Scientist. Accessed via: https://www.the-scientist.com/news-opinion/research-dollars-go-farther-at-less-prestigious-institutions--study-64529
  4. Wellcome Trust (2019). Four-year PhD Programmes in Science -Frequently asked questions. Wellcome Trust. Accessed via: https://wellcome.ac.uk/sites/default/files/four-year-phd-programmes-science-faqs-2019-01.pdf
  5. DORA declaration: https://sfdora.org/
  6. NWO (2019). KNAW, NWO en ZonMw ondertekenen DORA-verklaring. NWO. Accessed via:  https://www.nwo.nl/actueel/nieuws/2019/04/knaw-nwo-en-ZonMw-ondertekenen-dora-verklaring.html

Other information

Virtues & Values
Good Practices & Misconduct