Corporate funding of research is often unavoidable. But what the researchers make of the funded research solely depends on their academic rigour and personal integrity. Sounds too lofty?
It is true that research, specifically in sciences and technology, and to some extent in social sciences and humanities, requires funding. Universities, particularly those that are publicly-funded, are unable to provide funding. The bulk of their expenses go through salaries, utilities and essential student support services. Basic infrastructure for science and technology, by way of labs and equipment, is also provided for.
However, one of the parameters of hiring and career advancement of faculty is related to research and a policy orientation towards research. Research measured by publication output, as evident in various ranking metrics, adds to the competitive edge. Therefore, the seeking and pursuit of research grants is inevitable.
Many nations, as a conscious decision, fund research in sciences and technology. Research in social sciences and humanities is funded through councils. While the agenda with regard to state-supported research may not be pushy, the overall policy of nations towards, for example, health and nutrition, also spurs the institutional agenda. Dietary habits and changes in orientation of cropping pattern towards cash crops can be cited as examples of macro sectors such as health, nutrition and agriculture.
The binding nature of research clauses that restrict publication of the research output and also the thrust areas of the researcher, will also lead to the pursuit of the agenda of corporations as in the health and pharmaceutical sector.
Healthcare and development of drugs indicate one aspect of the positives. However, the side effects and unestablished claims of certain products can be harmful. For example, the beauty and cosmetic industry depends a lot on pushing dominant societal values like fairness.
Can there be a completely objective, unbiased pursuit of research? Theoretically, the answer may be, ‘Yes’. However, the infrastructure and support needed for dry and wet labs requires enormous funding. In the absence of immediate results, the State may not fund, driving researchers to seek industry support, also referred to as sponsored research.
Here, the outcome that is expected is salience towards the industry and its goals that may or may not be completely in tune with societal good. The civil society groups are also getting into the trap. Research support for development projects that involve resource extraction (oil and minerals) is an example. Consequences of many interventions are studied post facto with little scope for correction and intervention.
Can a people-supported research agenda prevail? It can, if systems for such participation are in place.
Committed research stems from the background and training in certain subjects. Similar learning processes apply in social sciences and humanities as in ideology.
Life sciences are all about health care and medical assistance. The pharmaceutical industry and its direct and indirect research arms support research. In some or many cases, that also requires clinical trials. The ethics of such trials is frequently debated. A true scientist may claim that his research is the outcome of his education and curiosity, but beginning from the master’s programme through PhD, he or she understands what is careerist and what is not. Few peripherals remain and contribute, but they are the exception.
A strong training in ethics, societal and value orientation may help stem the complete orientation of agenda-oriented research. Reading between the lines of many research reports may also reveal the subtext as well.
(Prof B P Sanjay was formerly Professor of Communication, Sarojini Naidu School of Art & Communication, UoH, Hyderabad and Former Director, IIMC, Founding VC, Central University of TN & PVC, UoH)...