Academic Research for Sale

It was reported in the press this week, first by the Wall Street Journal, that Google has been paying money to academics at US and UK universities in exchange for research aligned with Google’s policy interests. The reporting is based in part on a report, compiled by the Campaign for Accountability, and was picked up by major newspapers. As expected, Google is rejecting the claims and as reported in Wired it seems that the report could have been compiled more carefully.

The facts however remain. Researchers have taken money from Google—in the form of fellowships and research grants—and then written academic papers expressing views favourable to Google partially without acknowledging Google’s financial contributions. After the dust settles we will be left with two questions:

  1. What is the damage?
  2. Who is to blame?

The damage will manifest itself in the slow erosion of trust towards science, scientists and scientific research. In an ideal world a paper, claiming that having wast volumes of personal data collected is a fair exchange for the use of Google’s otherwise free services, would be published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal, because the author has critically examined the available evidence and found compelling arguments for this point of view. These days, however, it can also happen, that the author has found some evidence which—when viewed in a favourable light—could be interpreted in this way, that the author wants to retain Google’s favour and that obtaining external grants is a prerequisite for promotion at his or her university.

State power is divided between the legislative, executive and judicial branches. Similarly there is a division of responsibilities in the democratic decision-making process between science, religion and politics. It is the role of science to explain how the world is, the role of religion to teach what is important in our lives and the role of politics to mediate the competing claims of various groups of citizens. Scientists, who transgress these boundaries and use the cover of science to advocate for policies and world views, act shortsighted. By doing so they expose science itself to retaliation.

It is easy to put the blame for this on the scientists; after all, they took the money and “forgot” to acknowledge it in the paper. It would, however, be a mistake to ignore the environment in which science operates. University management, research councils, the REF, they all exert influence and place demands on scientists.

There is tension between the pursuit of truth and the pursuit of a career. Scientists start out with a desire to find truth, but early enough in their careers they encounter reality. University management values external grant income and REF-compliant impact case studies more than truth and knowledge. Scientists are not martyrs. Who would sacrifice their career if writing a friendly paper can open the door to grants and fellowships from Google which, in turn, make promotion so much easier? For lecturers in the UK attracting external grant income is a requirement for promotion, sometimes even for probation. For readers and professors it can become a requirement for employment.

Can we truly be surprised that in this environment scientists take money on Google’s terms?

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