Hey remember when the biggest criticism of academia was that it was all up in its ivory tower and not in touch with the “real” world? Admittedly, that’s not ideal, but I am coming around to the notion that it’s better than some of the alternatives:
A foundation bankrolled by Libertarian businessman Charles G. Koch has pledged $1.5 million for positions in Florida State University’s economics department. In return, his representatives get to screen and sign off on any hires for a new program promoting “political economy and free enterprise.”
The contract specifies that an advisory committee appointed by Koch decides which candidates should be considered. The foundation can also withdraw its funding if it’s not happy with the faculty’s choice or if the hires don’t meet “objectives” set by Koch during annual evaluations.
(You can read the whole article here. HT to Tony Cookson.) I would hazard a guess that these “objectives” aren’t of the typical publish or perish sort, and I’d be more than a little peeved if I were denied tenure because my research findings didn’t show definitively enough that libertarianism is awesome.
In case you’re not familiar, the Koch brothers are the founders of the Cato Institute (a right-wing think tank) and the Americans for Prosperity Foundation (an organization closely affiliated with the Tea Party movement). They also fund the very libertarian-leaning Mercatus Center at George Mason University. In other words, the Koch brothers are very active in setting up and/or supporting organizations that further their political interests. Taken at face value, these actions are legitimate (after all, money’s got to come from somewhere), but problems arise when the output of these organizations is viewed as unbiased scientific research.
Economics isn’t the only science-y profession to suffer from this sort of conundrum. Consider the conflict-of-interest scandal a few years ago at Harvard Medical School:
In a first-year pharmacology class at Harvard Medical School, Matt Zerden grew wary as the professor promoted the benefits of cholesterol drugs and seemed to belittle a student who asked about side effects.
Mr. Zerden later discovered something by searching online that he began sharing with his classmates. The professor was not only a full-time member of the Harvard Medical faculty, but a paid consultant to 10 drug companies, including five makers of cholesterol treatments.
“I felt really violated,” Mr. Zerden, now a fourth-year student, recently recalled. “Here we have 160 open minds trying to learn the basics in a protected space, and the information he was giving wasn’t as pure as I think it should be.”
I wholeheartedly agree with Mr. Zerden on the feeling violated front. I think that there is an expectation, at least for introductory courses, that students are exposed to a reasonably unbiased treatment of a subject, whether it be medicine, economics, history, chemistry, or anything else. This expectation, in turn, causes most students and others to interpret the material presented as objective rather than to seek out potential sources of bias. A similar expectation exists, in large part, in academic publishing- if a paper is peer-reviewed before publication, it must be the objective truth, right?
The fact of the matter is that there are many open questions in economics, especially in macroeconomics. Because of the relationship between economics and policy, people (economists and otherwise) often have very strong opinions regarding what they would like the answers to these open questions to be. For example, people seem to care more about whether government spending is effective as a stimulus measure than about whether the force of gravity is equal to 9.8 or 9.9. Unfortunately, preconceived notions and desires don’t make for good science, since true scientists are more interested in finding out what the answer is than in proving that they are right.
Inherent ideological biases affect the research process in a number of ways. They affect what questions a researcher looks at in the first place, what approach the researcher uses, what the researcher chooses to speak about in public, and whether a paper gets completed and published or filed away in a desk drawer. Research funding with either implicit or explicit ideological strings attached only compounds this problem.
As a researcher, I feel that the deal between the Koch brothers and Florida State University greatly undermines the academic credibility of the university’s economics department. (This doesn’t mean that the faculty are unqualified or incompetent, but rather than they aren’t doing the job that they are supposed to be doing.) At least I’m consistent, since I feel mostly the same way about organizations like the Cato Institute and the Mercatus Center. I am also aware, however, that bias doesn’t equal fallacy, so, while I look at the output of these organizations with a skeptical eye, I don’t automatically assume that their conclusions are invalid.
These sorts of conflict of interest place a fairly heavy burden on the consumers of economic research. In order to fully evaluate the conclusions of an academic paper, consumers need to know who wrote the paper, what his or her ideological bent is, where his or her funding comes from, what ties he or she has to outside organizations, etc. Some of this information is at least partially stated in the paper itself- researchers generally identify the institutions that they are affiliated with and what grants were used to fund the project. Paul Krugman even helps us out by naming his New York Times blog “The Conscience of a Liberal.” That said, this information gets less and less useful as the links to ideologies and outside organizations get more obscured- for example, would you have thought to investigate whether an FSU professor’s position was sponsored by the Koch brothers? Yeah, me neither, but I’m learning.
Luckily for consumers, like-minded researchers tend to congregate together, which makes their ideologies easier to identify. It also creates situations like this:
If you don’t immediately get it, you can find an explanation here.
My general advice to researchers is to keep in mind that we are in the business of discovering facts, and perhaps to put the following quote on a post-it or coffee mug or something in the office:
“People are entitled to their own opinions, but not to their own facts.” — Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan