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Does ‘matched funding’ give industry too much control over research? The experts respond

Researchers are increasingly urged to find external support, often from industry. But at what cost? Flickr

Many academics pay for their research by sourcing money from industry bodies. That money is often then matched by government funding agencies.

Professor Clive Phillips from University of Queensland’s School of Animal Welfare and Ethics argued in an opinion piece published on The Conversation that in his research field, the livestock industry often only funds studies it can control or veto. In this way, he said, public money is subsidising research that industry can use to shut down debate.

We asked experts in the research sector to respond:

Professor Les Field, The Chair of the Group of Eight Deputy Vice-Chancellors (Research) and Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research), University of New South Wales

Firstly, I am quite adamant that all research should be published. Research is the advancement of knowledge and ideally, we would want that all of our research findings should be publicly available. It really is a waste of quality research effort if the results are held under wraps and never see the light of day.

To the extent that the funding agencies can actually dictate the areas where they let contracts for research, the agencies clearly influence the nature of research that gets done. However, once the research contract or grant has been awarded, there really should be no influence on the conduct of the research or the nature of the results that may result.

The other issue is the possibility for selective use of the research output. While a researcher has an obligation to conduct the research professionally and with integrity, once out of the researchers hands, then selective use of the research output or using the research out of context is usually beyond the control of the researcher.

By funding agencies, I mean industry bodies like Meat and Livestock Australia (MLA), the Grain Board. They have funds set aside for research. It’s not just the agricultural industry at all, there’s one for coal, the minig industry, the sugar industry.

A lot of industry groups have these research support grants or contracts. The drug companies seem to be less organised but certainly they fund research too.

It happens all over the place and my concerns are the same – you have to read the contract.

We work in an environment where there is increasing pressure for researchers (and institutions) to seek out and actively apply for external research support. Most contracts now come with a range of provisos, caveats and restrictions and sometimes these cut across ownership of the research data and outcomes, restrictions on publication (either delaying or veto of publication).

This is not at all restricted to the “matched” funding type support that comes from say the MLA or some of the other Rural Research Agencies - it transcends contracts with government agencies and also to some extent even research grants from the major agencies (like the Australian Research Council and the National Health and Medical Research Council).

All of them have become more restrictive. The ARC is much more open, though, and demand their research gets published. It’s one of their requirements.

To some extent, the ARC is not the issue. The MLA has an issue because their research is co-funded by government departments.

The critical issue here is that we must go into contracts with our eyes open. We must be fully aware of the framework (and consequences) of any contract research that we enter into. If there are restrictions on publication (or something else), then we enter into a contract knowing that that is the case.

If we don’t agree with the restrictions, then we shouldn’t sign the contract or agree to undertake the research. At UNSW, it is not uncommon for us to simply decline or refuse or a contract if the conditions are restrictive.

It is important for our researchers to be able to publish their findings - their academic progression and reputation depends on the credentials they develop through publication and peer view.

The flip side is that publication also make the researchers more valuable as those best able to do contract research - the stronger the reputation, the more weight will be given to the research outcomes. So it is generally a win-win situation.

Professor Margaret Sheil, Chief Executive Officer, Australian Research Council

The funding arrangements through the Rural Research and Development Corporations such as described here are quite different to those of the ARC.

The arrangements he describes would not generally occur under ARC arrangements.

The ARC Linkage Scheme is our main scheme with industry. In the case of ARC schemes, we expect the partners to comply with the National Principles of Intellectual Property Management for Publicly Funded Research.

Dr Glenn Withers AO, Chief Executive Officer, Universities Australia

This animal exports research story, like the recent revelations of ongoing threats to climate change scientists, raises some fundamental issues regarding academic freedom.

The specifics of particular Meat and Livestock Australia grants are not a matter I can comment on properly.

But the discussion raises broader and wider matters that relate to the health of a democratic society. This sounds a little grandiose but I happen to believe it is true.

The issues of course are very complex but, to try to cut to the chase, my own view is that the simplest answer to the emergence of these challenges to free intellectual inquiry is to recognise that the price of liberty is eternal vigilance.

It is a testament to the power of ideas and research that people do seek to influence the researchers. It is no accident that authoritarian regimes distinctively seek control of academics (which is why I believe what some might see as a little pomposity on the importance of this is not out of place).

But it is also the case that the conduct of research requires funding and it is human nature that the piper will, from time to time, seek to call the tune.

A true task of good universities is to be ever alert to external and even internal pressure and to seek to minimise and eliminate its influence. Otherwise the currency and standing of what universities contribute will erode.

Strategies of diversification of sources of funding and of resisting restrictive conditions of funding that inhibit such free and open inquiry are required.

And for those who harken back to an assumed ideal age of lavish and disinterested government funding, a little reflection will soon show that this too has had had its problems and still has its dangers.

At the university level, the very autonomy and independence of universities and academics themselves in the process of discovery makes control of research content by the university itself both impractical and indeed inherently contradictory. Bureaucratic micro-control cannot work without stifling creativity.

The flip-side is that lapses will occur in practicing independence, particularly where jobs and empires depend on funding. Individual researchers and even departments and universities may, from time to time, lose sight of the greater goal in their pursuit of funding.

But what is crucial is that the culture that imbues the individual decisions over accepting funding or responding to pressure be one that is fiercely ethical and supportive, and this means the exercise of leadership.

University leaders, whether student leaders, lecturers or chief executives, must set the tone for their own colleagues and for those interacting with universities. If that means, in the end, a lesser quantum of university research, but a greater guarantee of its independence and integrity, then so be it.

Discussion such as that taking place in The Conversation right now is part of the process of ensuring that the core values that distinguish the purpose of a university can be affirmed and pursued.

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