- How to fund policy relevant research without compromising ethics.
- The complexities of managing government funding.
- The dilemmas of private foundation funding.
- The positionality of funding dilemmas.
The background and policy setting:
All scholars need funding for research. Sometimes we need to pay for field research, sometimes for surveys. Sometimes – indeed, often – what we most need is time to write. Happily, there are many sources of funding, from private foundations to governments and others, available (although of course never as much as we might want). But these various funding opportunities can themselves raise a new problem if we have reservations about the politics and practices of a potential funder.
I have spent a fair amount of time over the past several years coming to terms with the fact that there are certain funders from whom I am uncomfortable taking money. To dispense with an easy issue at the outset, I think there are few scholars who would take money with clear strings attached. In other words, if the funder is expecting – or worse, demanding – a certain finding, there can be no equivocation. Insofar as research is about asking questions, we cannot promise specific answers ahead of time.
Things can get muddy, though, if a funder has a history of engaging in certain policies and practices that we find suspect. Indeed, this concern has motivated a number of scholars who would reject funding from the Department of Defense. I am currently accepting DoD funds for a project on military medicine, a decision I did not take lightly. I know, for example, that some of my colleagues might object to this decision, and that potential future research interlocutors might be less willing to speak with me if they see that line on my cv. In this particular case, my concerns were alleviated by the fact that my work is directly relevant to the medical corps. Their main mission is to maintain the health of the force, and many of their scientific advances, like new kinds of tourniquets, are now in use in the civilian sector. In other words, I felt especially comfortable with the mission of this particular part of the military; I’d be less comfortable taking money to help think through various weapons systems.
The question of who we take money from is not limited to public funding: private foundations can generate similar issues for scholars looking for funding. Private foundations require wealth and endowments, and often the money upon which these foundations are based was ill-gained in some way. One argument for accepting such funds could be: “I’ll do good things with it.” I do think this argument has merit. I suspect, for example, that Andrew Carnegie, Henry Ford, and John D. Rockefeller would be surprised – and might not support – the myriad projects their eponymous foundations support today.
For me, this distance is key. I’m much more comfortable accepting funds from foundations named for long-gone “robber barons” than from those whose founders remain active in politics in ways that I oppose. I do not consider myself complicit in 19th-century steel mill union-busting because I accept funding from the Carnegie Corporation. A key reason is precisely that these organizations’ current missions often align closely with my own normative commitments. But I would be much less certain of my complicity if I were to accept money from an organization that had strong ties to people and other groups actively undermining US democracy today. I think we also see these differences – and this distance - reflected in the stances of program officers working for various foundations; you can get a real sense of what the organization’s priority is by talking to program officers and seeing what kinds of projects they’ve funded in the past.
What were the implications of this engagement?
This perch and position is admittedly uneasy, in several respects. First, I can very much see the opposing argument that, as long as the funder isn’t interfering with the research, the source doesn’t matter. I have many friends and colleagues who have accepted funds from organizations I would be less comfortable listing on my cv. I don’t respect them less for doing so. Second, I face this decision about funding sources from a position of great privilege. I am a tenured faculty member at an R1 institution. While there are no guarantees of future funding, my experience gives me an advantage while applying. Therefore, while I lay these issues out for my students, I also tell them that I would of course write them a letter of recommendation even if they were applying to a fellowship/organization from which I would be reluctant to take funds. But I also present the trade-offs for them so that they can make their own decisions. Different scholars at different points in their careers face very different constraints. And third, this issue can be a particularly tricky one for BIPOC scholars. On one hand, many funders are eager to demonstrate a commitment to diversity. On the other hand, BIPOC scholars are often especially likely to be criticized on many fronts, including accepting funds from “suspect” sources.
In sum, while I have made peace with my own decision, I try not to judge others for deciding differently. One reason for my restraint is that I have not always been aware of these issues. Indeed, it is entirely possible that I have violated my own internal rules unknowingly; not all organizations are transparent about their funders, and it would be lying if I said that I carefully reviewed financial reports of every potential funder when submitting applications. It can also be hard to know exactly where to draw the line. If I won’t accept a grant from a particular funder, would I attend a conference run by this organization? What about participating in a conference panel organized by such a group that doesn’t require any financial interaction (e.g., for reimbursement) on my part? But the main reason for my restraint is that it has taken me some time to formulate my own position. I have, in the past, (indirectly) accepted funds that I would decline today as a result of holding a leadership position at research institutes that came with some limited funding. While some might call me out for hypocrisy, my past experience has informed my current decision making. I continue to grapple with these issues. As scholars, we are supposed to be open to new evidence that changes our minds. This practice pertains equally to our writing and to our ethical quandaries.