Flush with success in creating an atom bomb, the U.S. federal government decided it should start funding nonmilitary scientific research. A government report entitled “Science, the Endless Frontier” provides the justification for doing this. It makes the case that “science is the responsibility of government because new scientific knowledge vitally affects our health, our jobs, and our national security” (Bush, 1945). Accordingly, the government established a Research Grants Office in January 1946 to award grants for research in the biomedical and physical sciences. It received 800 grant applications that year. The Research Grants Office is now known as the Center for Scientific Review (CSR), and it processes applications submitted to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and other agencies in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). In 2005, CSR received 80,000 grant applications.
Twenty-six federal granting agencies now manage 1,000 grant programs. Even clinical trials of drugs, vaccines, and devices, where industry may profit from the outcome, have come under the purview of government. Zarin and colleagues (2005) reviewed ClinicalTrials.gov records and found that the federal government currently funds 9,796 (51%) of the 19,355 interventional trials being conducted. Industry sponsors 4,734 (24%); and universities, foundations, and other organizations, 4,825 (25%). Under the current system scientists are expected to spend time drafting, writing, and refining unsolicited R01 grant applications, despite a less than one in ten chance of success.
Ethics of Writing Grant Proposals
Ethics in science and society “describe appropriate behavior according to contemporary standards” (Friedman, 1996). Two standards that scientists follow for writing grant proposals are 1) Keep it safe and survive, and 2) Don’t lie if you don’t have to. Pollack (2005) addresses the first ethic, noting that the paramount motivational factor for scientists today is the competition to survive. A scientist’s most pressing need, which supersedes the scientific pursuit of truth, is to get her grant funded—to pay her salary and that of her staff, to pay department bills, and to obtain academic promotion. The safest way to generate grants is to avoid any dissent from orthodoxy. Grant-review study sections whose members’ expertise and status are tied to the prevailing view do not welcome any challenge to it. A scientist who writes a grant proposal that dissents from the ruling paradigm will be left without a grant. Speaking for his fellow scientists Pollack writes, “We have evolved into a culture of obedient sycophants, bowing politely to the high priests of orthodoxy.”
The grant system fosters an Apollonian approach to research. The investigator does not question the foundation concepts of biomedical and physical scientific knowledge. He sticks to the widely held belief that the trunks and limbs of the trees of knowledge, in, for example, cell physiology and on AIDS, are solid. The Apollonian researcher focuses on the peripheral branches and twigs and develops established lines of knowledge to perfection. He sees clearly what course his research should take and writes grants that his peers are willing to fund. Forced by the existing grant system to follow such an approach, Pollack (2005) argues that scientists have defaulted into becoming a culture of believers without rethinking the fundamentals.
Peer review enforces state-sanctioned paradigms. Pollack (2005) likens it to a trial where the defendant judges the plaintiff. Grant review panels defending the orthodox view control the grant lifeline and can sentence a challenger to “no grant.” Deprived of funds the plaintiff-challenger is forced to shut down her lab and withdraw. Conlan (1976) characterizes the peer-review grant system as an “incestuous ‘buddy system’ that stifles new ideas and scientific breakthroughs.” Science is self-correcting and, in time, errors are eliminated, or so we are taught. But now with a centralized bureaucracy controlling science, perhaps this rhetoric is “just wishful thinking” (Hillman, 1996, p.102). Freedom to dissent is an essential ingredient of societal health. Braben (2004) contends that suppressing challenges to established orthodoxy sets a society on a path to its doom.
Science in Service to the State
Over the last 60 years a new power structure, the state, has taken control of information. It uses federal tax money to fund and control research through the peer-review grant system. It forms mutually advantageous partnerships with industry and the academic community, which do its bidding. The state holds sway over education. And to round out its control of information, an increasingly powerful centralized government bureaucracy has persuaded the mainstream media to accept and espouse state-approved ideas. The Western tradition of information ethics dating from ancient Greece to the 20th century, characterized by freedom of speech and inquiry, has been co-opted by government. Knowledge advances by questioning accepted paradigms (Hillman, 1995). The state thwarts this and requires its tax-funded scientists to conform to the official establishment view on such things as global warming and HIV/AIDS. Government-sponsored scientific research reflects the biases, preferences, and priorities of its leaders (Moran, 1998). The state uses science to further its social and political purposes. Its actions follow Lang’s First Law of Sociodynamics, where “The power structure does what they want, when they want; then they try to find reasons to justify it. If this does not work, they stonewall it (Lang, 1998, p. 797).
One alternative to the competitive peer review grant system that the NIH and NSF might consider for funding specific research projects is DARPA, the Defense Advance Research Projects Agency. This agency manages and directs selected research for the Department of Defense. At least up until now it has been “an entrepreneurial technical organization unfettered by tradition or conventional thinking” within one of the world’s most entrenched bureaucracies (Van Atta et al., 2003). Eighty project managers, who each handle $10–50 million, are given free reign to foster advanced technologies and systems that create “revolutionary” advantages for the U.S. military. Managers, not subject to peer review or top-down management, provide grants to investigators whom they think can challenge existing approaches to fighting wars. As long as the state controls funding for research, managers like this might help break the logjam of innovation in the biomedical and physical sciences. Science under the government grant system has failed and new kinds of funding, with less government control, are sorely needed.
[Read the complete paper, as published in the Spring 2007 issue of The Journal of Information Ethics]
Donald W. Miller, Jr., is a professor of surgery at the University of Washington School of Medicine, University of Washington, Seattle, WA. He received his M.D. degree from Harvard and did his cardiothoracic surgery residency at Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center. He has written two books on heart surgery and one, Heart in Hand, on the philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer, films of Woody Allen, and his life as a heart surgeon. He also writes articles for LewRockwell. com, which includes pieces on the importance of integrative medicine for maintaining optimum health.