Remaking Academia: Disclose Your Funders

Tuesday, January 10, 2012
In my first post on remaking academia, I recommended that authors disclose the funders of their research--as well as the costs of the work. The recommendation had twin aims: to expose any potential influences (positive or negative) on the research, and to allow others to make more accurate cost-benefit calculations when planning how to conduct their own research. Unless you know what good research really costs, it's hard to realistically plan for it-- and to fundraise to support it. If you know it'll be expensive, you have to seek outside support, and that will lead directly to the decisions you'll make that will eventually require that you name your funders.

This week, the national association of economists adopted similar standards. Given the extent to which economics is alpha dog in social science research, capturing headlines and exerting disproportionate influence on public thinking, this is the right move-- just long overdue. Said one economist in the Chronicle of Higher Education, "Economics is in the harm business but we don't wrestle with the ethical implications."

Admittedly, sometimes naming funders is easier said than done. For example, I have been supported by a foundation that stipulates in a contract that it is not to be named in publications. I have difficulty with this, and pondered the reasons for it, but ultimately abided by the request. I do this only because I feel certain that receiving funding from that source has had no other influence on my actual research other than making data collection (which I designed and conducted) possible. The foundation is extremely low-touch, especially compared to others which I do name-- those that provide professional development and other supports which could shape the direction of my thinking and research.

It can also be unclear when a funder must be named. Academics often have multiple sources of support from our time, and our time is blurry-- summers can be funded from 3-4 sources and who knows who's paying for the time you spend on a given Fridsy writing an article. In those cases, I recommend acknowledging them all.

Finally, we have to check our propensities to overreact to the naming of funders-- and not too quickly presume untoward influence, while maintaining a healthy skepticism. It's very common, for example, to see the Gates Foundation listed as a funder of education research-- but the role the Foundation plays in each piece varies tremendously, according to both authors and program officers. Sometimes the idea started with the Foundation, and other times it was the last funder in-- hardly influential.

The main goal should be honesty and transparency. Don't wring your hands over it-- just do it.