- How Science Works
- Sources and Experts: Where to Find Them and How to Vet Them
- Making Sense of Science Stats
- Editing for Story
- Editing Controversial Science
- Holding Science to Account
- Covering Health Care
- Climate and the Environment
- Fact-Checking Science Journalism: How to Make Sure Your Stories Are True
Illustrating Complex Science Stories
- The Role of Visuals in Science Journalism
- The Process of Building Science-Centric Graphics
- Strategies for Using Visuals to Put Breaking Science in Context
- Special Considerations for Data Visualization
- Uncertainty and Misinformation
- Editorial Illustration, Photography, and Moving Images
- Additional Reading and Resources
- About the Author
- Social Media and Reader Engagement
- Popular Science
- Op-Eds and Essays
- About This Handbook
How Science Is Funded
By Apoorva Mandavilli / 3 -minute read
Sometimes science is presented as a “pure” endeavor, free of bias and pressures that other professionals may feel. But of course, that’s nonsense.
Science is conducted by scientists, and scientists are people, subject to all the same temptations and troubles as anyone else. A significant portion of the world’s science is conducted at universities, which often function like corporations. They keep an eye on the bottom line and have expectations for employees’ performance. Any grants that university scientists win typically help fund their home institutions, so universities tend to like people who win big grants.
So, as with any other kind of reporting, it’s important in science journalism to follow the money: Who funded the work? And why?
When reading a study, “it’s always best practice to look at the acknowledgements section and see who funded the research,” says Roxanne Khamsi, an editor and writer for publications including Nature and Wired.
The federal government, through its various agencies, funds a significant portion of basic research (defined as “activity aimed at acquiring new knowledge or understanding without specific immediate commercial application or use”) in the United States. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) and other agencies under the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) fund most biomedical research. The National Science Foundation (NSF) provides grants for research and education in basic biology, mathematics, and engineering. Other funding sources are industry, universities, and philanthropic organizations.
Research-and-Development Funding by Sector
|Basic R&D||Applied R&D||Experimental R&D||Total R&D|
|Other nonprofit organizations||$11,830||$7,984||$3,526||$23,340|
For many researchers, these government grants are the primary source of funds for their own salaries and for their teams. How much money is available varies with administrations and their budget priorities, but the NIH has traditionally fared well with rising budgets through Democratic and Republican administrations alike. Nevertheless, the growing number of scientists vying for grants far outstrips available money.
These days, the NIH funds about one in 10 grant applications, so the competition is fierce. Researchers who lose out on multiple grants can find themselves having to shutter their labs.
This means scientists often feel pressured to make their work sound more exciting than it really is. A researcher working on an obscure cellular mechanism in fruit flies may feel compelled to claim that it can lead to a treatment for cancer. Or be tempted to make progress on a previous grant or research paper sound more significant than it is, in order to justify getting a new grant.
It’s incumbent upon journalists to be aware of these pressures and expectations on scientists, and to examine whether the data from a paper really support any lofty claims.
Other sources of funding include nonprofit foundations, like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation; advocacy groups, such as those that seek to cure a specific disease; and for-profit companies. In order to win funding, scientists sometimes try to angle their work to fit the organization’s goals.
It is crucial for you to vet not just the work, but also the funding organization. The membership of a nonprofit’s an advisory board can reveal a lot, as can the “About us” section of its website. Innocuous language like “understanding the role of the environment” in autism can be a front for anti-vaccine advocacy by groups such as SafeMinds, for example. With the exception of a few private nonprofits, most such groups tend to be small, with niche interests in funding. It’s wise to vet these nonprofits on GuideStar or other organizations that list front groups.
The big money outside of government funding goes to research with direct clinical applications, often from biotechnology or pharmaceutical companies with deep pockets. It’s not difficult to see the bias in studies funded by these for-profit entities once you know what to look for.
For example, when pharmaceutical companies run a clinical trial for a new drug, 75 percent of those trials test against a placebo (a substance with no therapeutic effect). That might seem reasonable, but often it’s not. The companies should test the candidate drug’s performance against the best available treatment for that condition, to see if the new drug is an improvement over existing methods. Many cancer drugs, for example, offer only a marginal benefit in survival when compared with the standard treatments.
Several studies have also shown that studies funded by pharmaceutical companies draw positive conclusions much more often than those funded by nonprofit or academic organizations. Often that is because unfavorable studies are never published. Other times, companies may influence scientists to interpret a study’s results favorably, both subtly through financial entanglements, and overtly through the omission of unfavorable data.
For those reasons, many journals now require scientists to disclose their conflicts of interest. That’s a section of the academic paper Khamsi pays close attention to. “There are conflicts of interest listed on many studies at the end of the paper, so I always read those,” she says.
Virginia Hughes, an editor at The New York Times, suggests going one step further. It’s always a good idea to ask scientists about their funding sources during the interview, she says. “If a scientist gets squirmy when asked that question, there might be something juicy there!”