At a luncheon today we were discussing the conflict of interest extensive corporate sponsorship of universities creates, and how this can distort research. Steve Horwitz came back with a nice point: why do we assume that corporate funding leads to a conflict of interest, but state funding does not? Isn’t research at publicly funded institutions equally suspect?
I think Steve is right, at least partially. I didn’t get a chance to respond at the luncheon, so I’m doing it here. There are certainly plenty of cases in the sciences where government funding has seriously distorted research priorities and results, and indeed, whole fields of investigation. A good example of this is the development of agricultural research over the last hundred years. The mainstream understanding of farm ecosystems and economics has been developed by a network of land grant universities and agricultural extension services who are concerned almost exclusively with large scale, monocultural farms.
Liberals and progressives tend to think of this as a corporate bias, since the beneficiaries have been large agribusinesses. But really, this historical trend better fits the libertarian critique, where states are seen to intervene to promote a narrow interest group at the expense of free markets.
Really, to see whether someone has avoided conflict of interest is to look at the way the money is distributed, and not just whether the funding is private or public. Money is distributed well when the choices about who to fund are made by independent agencies, rather than politicians or executives with specific agendas.