Bias in Industry Funded Research: A Problem of Funding Source or Lack of Openness in Research?

We are glad to bring to you a guest post by Dr. Arul George Scaria on industry funded research/conferences and bias, a recently much debated issue on our blog. Dr. Scaria is an Assistant Professor of Law and Co-Director of the Centre for Innovation, Intellectual Property and Competition (CIIPC) at National Law University, Delhi. The views expressed is this post are his personal and he wishes to thank Kuhuk Jain and Shreyashi Ray for their critical comments on this post.

Bias in Industry Funded Research: A Problem of Funding Source or Lack of Openness in Research?

Dr. Arul George Scaria

Diwali is a festival of lights and I must thank Shamnad for rekindling on Diwali the debates on one of the most controversial and important issues – bias in industry funded research and conferences. Shamnad, through his posts available here and here, has tried to bring more perspectives to the discussions initiated by Prashant and Prof. Srividhya Raghavan, which are available here and here. I thought of adding my two cents to this debate, as an open science advocate and as a researcher who has also used industry funding for independent academic research.

Most readers of SpicyIP would have seen at least some research/ conferences funded by industry (or research/ conferences funded by NGOs and Government Organisations) that are meant to advance only their own interests. But the critical question is, to whom should we attribute the responsibility for such biased research and conferences? As a researcher who believes that openness is the foundation of science, I would argue that the primary responsibility for such biased research and conferences should be on researchers who are willing to compromise on the core values of scientific research for money or other material benefits.

Can we rely solely on internal funding for research?

It is generally accepted that no research institution or academic institution in this country would be able to rely solely on internal funding for conducting all its research and conferences. The reason is simple – the economic resources available for most of our research institutions are limited. So unless they increase the fees for their students (which is not a socially desirable result, as it would make research and education beyond the reach of millions of our intellectually rich, but economically poor students!) many of the institutions may not be able to spend more on research or conferences. In such a context, researchers and institutions may have to rely on funding from external sources, including public funding agencies, NGOs, industry organisations or private firms. It is important to understand that all of those external sources may have their own interests for funding any project and it would be naïve to think that the public funding agencies or NGOs are completely free from any such interests. As researchers, it is important for us to ensure that we insulate our research and research related activities like conferences from interferences of those funding the projects. It is also important to recognize that this is a challenge faced by researchers across the world and across the disciplines. The Open Letter on Ethical Norms in Intellectual Property Scholarship initiated by Prof. Feldman, Prof. Lemley, Prof. Masur and Prof. Rai was an explicit response to this problem in the field of intellectual property.

How do we address the question of interferences/ bias?

If we all agree that there is a potential problem with regard to interferences from funding agencies, then the next question is how to address it. Should we address the issue of bias by shutting down all external funding or should we try to address it by making researchers aware of the issue of bias and taking steps (both at individual as well as institutional level) for ensuring that core research values will never be compromised while taking funding from external sources. To me, it is the second one which is optimal, as external funding is inevitable for any good research, for the reasons highlighted above.

To ensure that the funding agencies do not influence our research agenda, it is important to communicate ex-ante to funding agencies that they cannot influence the conclusions or outcomes of the research they fund. As highlighted in the open letter on ethical norms in IP scholarship (disclosure: I am a signatory to that open letter), it is also important to make it explicit to the funding agencies that no prior approval will be taken from them before making the research outputs public. Most importantly, the source of funding should be publicly disclosed by the research organisations and conference organisers. This would inevitably lead to a higher level of scrutiny of research outputs, which is desirable from the perspective of a better science. If we strictly follow the principles of open science, which demand openness in all stages of research, issues of potential bias can be easily identified. Finally, I must also add here that from the perspective of open science, it shouldn’t matter who are the researchers or who are the funding agencies. What matters is how transparent we are with regard to our sources of funding, disclosure of conflict of interests, the manner in which research is being conducted and how the research outputs are disseminated.

Should judges stay away from industry funded conferences?

In the context of judges attending industry funded conferences, Prof. Raghavan has suggested in her post that “[i]t is perfectly reasonable to expect the judge to recuse himself from cases involving the industry in question as a show of propriety”. I may disagree with Prof. Raghavan on this. To me, it is important to consider judges also as mature individuals who have the ability to form an informed opinion on what is good and bad. It is their judgments which should speak about their bias, and not their participation in a conference or workshop. As important stakeholders in policy making, it is important that they also get opportunities to hear diverse perspectives. Conferences and workshops can help them form their own reasoned opinions. It wouldn’t be reasonable to consider our judges as people who can be so easily influenced by participation in an industry sponsored conference (or any other conference for that reason!) and some of the anecdotal evidences highlighted by Prashant in his post also confirm this.

But here also it is important to make sure that the conference organisers openly declare through their website or other promotional materials their sources of funding, so that all participants can have a more critical evaluation of the nature of discussions generated by that conference. It would also be desirable if all the expenses incurred for the participation of judges are taken care of by the judiciary itself (which is the current practice in India, to the best of my knowledge!). This would be particularly helpful in ensuring that they are able to attend also conferences and other programs organised by institutions with lesser resources. It may also reduce chances of them receiving undue favours from the conference organisers like free upgrades on flights or accommodation in luxury hotels.

Diverging approaches of external funding agencies with regard to values in research

I would like to conclude the post by also narrating two of my personal experiences with regard to external funding for research. I am currently heading a project on open science and Qualcomm Inc. is funding this project. To the best of my knowledge, Qualcomm Inc. has no direct interest in the area of open science, except may be for improving the quality of research/ science in general. Till date, they have never interfered with regard to the research questions of my project or any of the research outputs. The source of funding has also been explicitly mentioned on our website from the very beginning. This experience clearly shows that it is wrong to presume that industry will support only research that promotes their business interests.

The second experience was with regard to a funding agency supported by a foreign government. The representative of that funding agency had approached me asking whether I would be interested in studying the effectiveness of an anti-piracy enforcement branch created by one of the state governments in India. In view of my interest in the area of copyright piracy, my initial response was positive and I submitted a research proposal. After going through the proposal, the representative called me and told that they would like to see only a positive recommendation from my study for replicating the said model to other states in India. When I made it explicit that I as a researcher cannot engage in such pre-determined research, the response was as expected – no funding. Some of the experiences mentioned by Shamnad in his posts also show that this is not an isolated incident and some of the funding agencies may continue their attempts to create pre-determined research outputs. But the result of such interactions, i.e., not getting funding from them or not getting invited for conferences organised by them, is only positive and we should never have regrets about it.

The road ahead

Funding from external sources is now more or less inevitable for any research institution/ researcher. To address the issue of bias in industry sponsored research, the only comprehensive solution is to constantly remind researchers about the core values of scientific research. Creating fear about industrial funding will not help the progress of scientific research. But the challenge of potential bias in industry sponsored research re-emphasises the need for practicing openness at all stages of research. There is a need for more institutional level and individual level measures to make open science the norm in research. Let this discussion bring more light in this regard!

One comment.

  1. Kodandaram Madihalli

    A democracy will be vibrant and successful, only when all the stake holders actively participate in the progress of the society. Citizens, educationists, researchers, public servants, commercial organisations,corporates and everyone should play their role with the sole aim to lead the society towards matured civilisation. There is no need to differentiate and restrict the participation by any stake holder based on the earlier traditional parameters. There is need of changing our outlook and decisions in the light of present dynamic atmosphere. Only when everyone strides towards this common goal, benefits could accrue to the society.

    In these days of rapid globalisation and growth of digital and communication technology for common good, the political divisions are a mere tools of convenience to Govern. The ultimate goal of mankind should be to establish a happy and meaningful living for everyone on this earth, to realise the goal of ‘vasudaiva kutumbakam’ as visualised by our ancestors. Viewed from this larger perspective, I totally agree with the author that the funding by commercial organisations, be it in the form of national or international corporates, to fuel inventions and research across the educational institutions are fine and healthy. However, such contributions should not be driven by selfish benefits and profit motives to the donors, instead must be intended for the common good and progress of the society. The freedom of the educational institutions should never be compromised . If this is preserved and followed as primary and essential principle, any such funding are to be a welcome.

    About the participation of judges in the activities of the universities funded by such bodies, there is no need of restrictions.The participation of judges in social activities is always desirable as the judges are also required to be educated and the judiciary has to respond timely to the changes occurring in the society. Judges need to learn the art of handling the changed circumstances. If an university organises any programme, there is no need to restrict the participation by any judicial member. Funding of such programmes by corporates should not be an hindrance, as long as the university is independent in its decision and are not bound by the mission or vision of such corporates.

    M G Kodandaram.
    NACEN, Bengaluru.


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