Big Philo and Distortions in the Philosophical Research Agenda


In a post at Digressions & Impressions, Eric Schliesser (Amsterdam), discusses the influence of big money on academic research, with a focus on “displacement effects.”

The contestation of ideas is costly in time and effort. This matters because time and effort are scarce resources. All other things being equal, it follows that if some ideas X are being discussed/contested others Y get less attention or are ignored.

So, one way in which external donors skew research is by generating interest in some topics of contestation which, in turn, displace attention from others which do not get contested at all. Such displacement effects grow larger when the funding is skewed toward PhD, Post-doc, and permanent positions because then they generate endowments effects well into the future in favor of certain topics. In practice this entails that the future focus of a discipline is being directed toward some set of topics and not another. (There are other side-effects: in the bits of Europe where I work, PhD positions are nearly entirely funded by external grant agencies—this has had predictable effect of producing PhDs that are experts in some areas but not well prepared (say) to teach in standard undergraduate curriculum.) All of us that get such grants from Templeton and state-science foundations participate in a process that skews the research agenda… Grants and sponsored research are a non-trivial part of the institutional structure that shape the course of scientific process.  

Does “Big Philo” skew the philosophical research agenda? One optimistic possibility is that there are a sufficient number of funding sources with sufficiently diverse points of view that their individual distorting effects largely cancel each other out. Another optimistic possibility is that the amount of funding behind a particular piece of philosophy is not, as a matter of fact, correlated to its citation rates, or with uptake of its thesis by the rest of the philosophical community (or other measures of its influence). Of course, I don’t know whether either of these optimistic possibilities are true.

Figuring out the effect of funding on the philosophical research agenda is a complicated project. It is interesting to consider what would count as evidence in such an investigation. Discussion welcome.

(We’ve discussed Templeton grants here before: see, for example, the exchange between Dennett and Mele.)

Collage of dollar bills (detail) by Mark Wagner

Collage of dollar bills (detail) by Mark Wagner

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JDRox
JDRox
4 years ago

If ‘skew’ just means influence, then of course money skews research. (I and many other people I know have applied for funding for projects that wouldn’t have been our first priorities if not for discrepancies in funding. I find it hard to believe we’re the only ones.) If ‘skew’ means objectionably influence, then I would say I don’t know, but probably not. Lots of things affect what projects are pursued, and it would be pretty difficult to find a way of categorizing these as objectionable or unobjectionable. (Of course, it’s easy to categorize them as funding research I like and funding research I don’t. But funding research I don’t like isn’t objectionable in an significant sense.)Report

Thomas
Thomas
4 years ago

I think that there are multiple ways, in how big externals funds shape the discipline:
first of all, there are different branches of philosophy, such as phil. of science, empirically informed phil. of mind, and applied ethics, that
have significantly higher chances at receiving big grants, than e.g, phenomenology, aesthetics, Kant-scholarship or meta-ethics.
Thus, more phd-students and post-docs are likely to work on related topics, as there are simply way more research based jobs in those areas.

Apart from that, I assume that big grants also create an unhealthy imbalance between competing research programs. To illustrate my point,
let`s assume that there are two equally strong programs in phil. of mind . One of them now receives a three million dollar/euro grant, whereas the other
receives no additional funding. The lucky department now acquires a dozen post-docs, invites super-stars as visting fellows, they hold big conferences etc., while the other department
is left with nothing. Needless to say, the “school of thought” of the rich department now dominates the field. I think that`s not an uncommon phenomenon, in Europe at least.
Report

Mark van Roojen
4 years ago

Justin, one reason you don’t know those optimistic possibilities to be true is that they aren’t.

I have to say that I find it hard to take these optimistic possibilities seriously as epistemic possibilities. What we’d need to make the first true would be a whole lot more donors with money to burn and a much more varied set of views to which they are partial. While many of the major donors with a point of view that informs their funding do fund people with opposing views, it is hard for me to believe that they are going much beyond what they’d need to legitimate the views that they in fact wish to support. I don’t think it is obvious they their individual actions are wrong when they do that (nor do I think it obvious that one should eschew such funding) but I think that absent equally well funded folks with opposing interests there is no way this leads to an unbiased marketplace of ideas or whatever one might set up as a more ideal social setting in which to do philosophy. When we get the Karl Marx foundation competing with Templeton to fund research, I’ll be wrong. So I don’t think that private funding of the sort we now have has to be a bad thing in all circumstances. But the circumstances in which it isn’t on balance skewing our research in problematic ways probably are pretty distant.

As for the second optimistic hypothesis, how could the additional money and time (which is really what you get if you spend money on philosophy) not lead to more attention to certain sorts of work? And if it didn’t, is that an argument to eliminate sabbaticals?

FWIW, I am pretty sure that if I took money from someone I’d be very tempted to pull my punches in criticizing their point of view (if even just by being more polite about it than I might otherwise be).

Hope this doesn’t come off as too crabby, but it seems like you’re trying too hard to give the benefit of the doubt to the opposing view.Report

Mark Alfano
4 years ago

My impression is that agenda-driven funding agencies have a larger influence on topics, themes, and questions than on positions and answers. For instance, we’re now seeing a lot of work on intellectual humility because of Templeton. What we’re not seeing is work that takes some sort of Templeton-dictated position on intellectual humility (either pro/con, or on the nature of IH). So the main question, to my mind, is about the opportunity cost: what would philosophers have been doing if they hadn’t been prompted by such grant funding? Probably some would have worked on the same topic anyway. Some would have worked on a different research topic (this is the main idea of Schliesser’s critique). In many instances, though, they wouldn’t have been doing research at all: they would have been teaching a regular class, teaching a summer class, doing extra admin work, scrounging for scraps in some other way, or dropping out of the discipline entirely (I know of cases of all of these). One common use of grant funding is to buy course releases.

I think this is worth bearing in mind, because it means that it’s not a zero-sum game, which seems to be the assumption made by Schliesser, the OP, and several of the comments — perhaps because they themselves have research positions. It would be interesting to investigate how much agenda-driven grants support the research of people at non-R1 & non-ranked departments, as that might be used to argue that such agencies play a leveling role by creating opportunities for the less fortunate.

It’s also worth bearing in mind that the funding situation in the USA (where I assume many readers of DN are located) is very different from the one in Europe (where Schliesser is), and in a few other places such as Australia. In Europe, for instance, there is genuine research support for the humanities, through grant schemes such as the ERC Starting/Consolidator/Advance grants and similar national schemes. NEH funding, by contrast, is dishearteningly paltry. In Europe, therefore, Templeton holds less sway, and the bigger concern may be that national funding priorities direct people to focus not on religious topics but on the military-industrial complex or things that can be somehow monetized. In the Netherlands, for example, 20% of the score for personal grant applications (Veni/Vidi/Vici) depends on “valorization,” which basically means supporting state interests or making money.

(Full disclosure: I was a co-PI on a Templeton grant on intellectual humility. I was never pressured — explicitly or subtly enough for me to notice — to take a particular line or “go easy” on a Christian conception of humility.)Report

Phoenix, son of Amyntor
Phoenix, son of Amyntor
Reply to  Mark Alfano
4 years ago

To your last comment, might the objection be that Templeton selected you because they already had reasonable grounds to conclude (based on your application materials) that your research on intellectual humility would fit with their agenda? If so, might that also be a part of the skewing that Schliesser is worried about?Report

Mark Alfano
Reply to  Phoenix, son of Amyntor
4 years ago

Uh, I guess that’s a possibility. I mean, I’ve done work on Nietzsche’s charge that Christianity induced a revaluation of values, and I’ve claimed that the contemporary Western view of humility is a palimpsest in which the ancient virtue of pride jostles against Christian self-abnegation in a conceptually tense, possibly self-contradictory way. So there’s that.Report

Phoenix, son of Amyntor
Phoenix, son of Amyntor
Reply to  Mark Alfano
4 years ago

That’s well and good, but I’m hunching that you did not propose to Templeton (and have accepted) a project championing Nietzsche’s attack on Christianity or a project rejecting Christian self-abnegation. (I would welcome being wrong here.)
Moreover, I wholly agree with Schliesser’s comment: “Note that displacement effects are compatible with individual epistemic and moral virtuousness.”Report

Mark Alfano
Reply to  Phoenix, son of Amyntor
4 years ago

I proposed a project according to which IH is difficult to measure because it is (on the verge of being) conceptually incoherent as a virtue. And they saw my CV. You’re good at generating speculative criticism, not so good at glancing at the CV of the person you’re criticizing. There’s a reason I am commenting under my own name here.

Anyway, I accept your point that there may be a selection bias in the aggregate. It’s a serious consideration, even if the ad hominem distracts from it.Report

grimpoteuthis
grimpoteuthis
4 years ago

“…it is hard for me to believe that they are going much beyond what they’d need to legitimate the views that they in fact wish to support.”

I sympathize with Mark’s (van Roojen) concerns here, but the pattern of Templeton funding in recent years seems to provide evidence that this claim is false. Major Templeton funding initiatives are being run by folks that do not buy into the ideological commitments of people at Templeton (in fact, I find it hard to believe that the institution itself has any ideological commitments; rather, the founder seems to have had quirky commitments that are not reflected in the recent distribution of funding). For instance, Al Mele, Ned Block, John Martin Fischer, and Tim Crane are currently overseeing or have overseen major grants even though none of these individuals have explicit ideological commitments that match those of Templeton. And I don’t think they are susceptible to the kind of intellectual bullying that Mark suspects.

Of course, someone might point out that major grants were also given to Christian Miller, Dan Howard-Snyder, and Eleonore Stump/John Greco to study topics that have an explicit ideological bent. But to that, I would remind people that Templeton also gave major grants to Walter Sinnott-Armstrong and Felipe De Brigard, two people who have no interest in supporting the Templeton ideology. And my sense, given what I know about these grants, is that no one felt pressured to ‘skew’ their results to fit something amenable to the Templeton line (and, again, I think it’s implausible and possibly insulting to suggest that these individuals would submit to the kind of intellectual dishonesty needed to do such a thing).

There are many other examples, but the point is that Templeton doesn’t seem to be distorting the results of current research trends by funneling money to individuals that will parrot the party line. FWIW, Templeton seems to fund projects that either: a) philosophers were working on before (free will, character, conscious perception), or; b) extend current research projects in directions that could not be pursued without additional resources that are not available through traditional channels (intellectual humility, neurophilosophy, etc.).Report

Heath White
Heath White
4 years ago

I think we need to separate the worries (1) that Big Phil influences the *content* of what people say; (2) that Big Phil promotes some *viewpoints* at the expense of others; (3) that it alters the *focus of attention on topics or questions* from what it otherwise would have been. From what I can tell, it is quite likely that (3) is true but unlikely that (1) is true, with (2) in the middle; and it is quite likely that (1) is problematic but much less likely that that (3) is problematic, with (2) in the middle.

The OP focused on (3) and worried whether it was problematic. But that assumes there is some natural, unskewed distribution of interest in topics which is morally unproblematic. What is that distribution? I would be interested in the moral theory that could explain it. In practice, the field focuses on the set of topics which philosophers at R1 places like to publish and teach on. What’s unproblematic about that?

Off the top of my head, it does not seem to me that the set of problems philosophers would naturally be interested in if left to their own devices has any more presumptive authority than the set which some rich philosophically-inclined people would like them to think about: both could be equally self-involved. The set of topics which the wider society would benefit from philosophers focusing on has some presumptive authority, but it’s not clear to me that we are more likely to get this by having no Big Phil influence than by having it.Report

impure
impure
4 years ago

II think the point that there is ‘no natural distribution of focus areas’ is an important one. I have received Templeton grants, and while that never influenced the content of my work it did influence, to an extent, the topic. On the other hand, the topic is one that I already had a natural inclination toward anyway. If I had not been influenced by Templeton, I would likely have been influenced by other less than pure motives. Most likely, I would have chosen a topic that I thought would impress famous philosophers and advance my career (while fitting my natural inclinations as well.) The idea that there is some pure way of finding an area of study, completely removed from the world of impure incentives, seems very naive. Report

Matt
4 years ago

I’m sort of surprised that there hasn’t been any discussion here of the very significant funding by the Koch brothers and other wealthy Libertarians for programs like the Political Theory Project at Brown, the “Center for the Philosophy of Freedom” at Arizona, some of the business ethics staff at Georgetown, (at least in the past) the Social Philosophy and Policy Center at Bowling Green, and for the journal Social Philosophy and Policy (which has moved from Bowling Green to Arizona, but continues the tradition of having a very high percentage of Libertarian contributors) among others. It’s hard for me to know if this funding has had much effect on the _content_ of philosophical work (*), but it’s certainly been important in increasing the frequency and prominence of libertarian political philosophy.
(*) Koch funding seems pretty clearly to have influenced the content of work done in the econ department and law school at George Mason, but it at least seems less certain to me in philosophy.

Also, “Impure” said, “I have received Templeton grants, and while that never influenced the content of my work…”

That may be completely true. But, pretty much all the literature on this sort of thing suggests that it’s at best pretty hard to tell in one’s own case. I think that suggests that we should all be pretty cautious about whether we are being influenced by funding without realizing it. There is, after all, no good reason to think we philosophers are exceptions to very common tendencies. (If anything, I suspect that thinking that one is especially immune to such tendencies actually makes one more likely to fall prey to them.) Report

Ben S
Ben S
Reply to  Matt
4 years ago

I did my undergrad at George Mason and am happy to report that philosophy is safe. In fact, of the philosophy/econ cross-appointees I worked with when I was there (who I presume but don’t *know* were hired with Koch money), one was a hippie logician from the Pacific Northwest and the other was a Swedish social democrat. Hardly the Koch’s core demographic – and I can assure you there was little overlap of views.Report

impure
impure
4 years ago

Yeah, I guess I could be deceived. But I would not have known how to write in a way that pleased Templeton. I got a Templeton grant, but did not apply for it through Templeton themselves. I honestly have no idea what sort of thing Templeton would like to see, or how I would change my work to please them. I get the impression many here think they are advocating a religious conservative agenda? I have never bothered to look at their page to see if this is true.

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Kenny Easwaran
4 years ago

One other question to consider is to what extent these sorts of funding function as a kind of solution to a coordination problem. We often work better when there are many people thinking about related issues and bouncing ideas off of each other, rather than when each of us is working on a completely separate project as an atomized individual with little interaction from others. There are definitely lots of forces within the discipline encouraging people to work on similar topics (whatever combination of fashion, trends, hireability, etc. there might be), but it’s certainly far from obvious what the net result of these effects is. It could well be that there’s value in having other sources of coordination from funding agencies, even if the particular projects that start it off aren’t the ones that any individual in the community would have picked.

Of course, this is just one more consideration. I’m not claiming that this network-building effect is more positive than whatever negative effects there might be of a skew of research directions. I’m sure it depends on the particular type of funding and its motives.Report