Private Money in Political Philosophy


The following is a guest post* by Lisa Herzog, assistant professor or political philosophy and theory at the School of Public Policy at the Technical University of Munich (Technische Universität München). It originally appeared at the group blog, Justice Everywhere.

What, if anything, is wrong with private money in political philosophy?
by Lisa Herzog

Recently, there have been increasing worries about the role of private money that funds libertarian political philosophy (see e.g. here or here). The role of private money in academic research is not precisely a new problem; it has plagued other fields for decades (see e.g. here for a study of some of the more problematic forms). But it seems to be rather new for political philosophy, or at least it seems to have gone to levels it has not had in the recent past. But what exactly is wrong with it? Isn’t it simply an exercise of freedom of expression to use one’s money to sponsor scholarship one is interested in?

In fact, as an Adam Smith scholar, I had long been aware of some of the institutions, such as the Liberty Fund and the Institute for Humane Studies, that fund lush workshops about the Scottish Enlightenment and other “classic liberal” themes. I know because I, too, went to a few of them—as a wide-eyed PhD student, with no idea about what stood behind them. I remember one night, just having stepped down from a transatlantic flight and feeling almost braindead, finding myself in from of a libertarian PhD student and trying to argue that No, I was not being enslaved by the high tax rate in my European country, on which he seemed to look down in a mixture of disdain and disbelief. But most of the academic debates at the workshops were of high quality, and while I often felt I was the most left-leaning person in the room, there were solid exchanges of arguments. The more I learned about the context of these workshops, however, the more invitations I declined. I felt uneasy not so much about the workshops as such, but about the role of these institutions in the context of American politics.

So—what exactly is the problem?

The first worry is that instead of serious scholarship, what one gets is shallow propaganda. But that’s too simplistic a picture. It’s not always the case that corporate money sponsors ideologically convenient, but incompetent mavericks. Rather, think tanks and foundations pick out people who happen to defend ideas that are in line with their own worldviews. In this respect, political philosophy is different from experimental sciences: in our field, there are almost always two sides to a debate, and we can rarely completely close a case because of overwhelming evidence in one direction or the other (but note that insofar as political philosophers draw on claims from other fields, they must accept the standards of evidence that are available in them).

This leads to a second worry: the introduction of biases in research. Although there are also left-wing foundations, it seems clear that in capitalist economies more money will be available to those who air views that are convenient to capitalists. But whether or not this introduces a “bias” is not as clear as it might at first appear. An argument that I’ve heard from defenders of such forms of funding is that they create a counterweight to what they perceive as a “liberal mainstream” in academia, held up by academics who are on public payrolls, and hence more inclined towards state action than private enterprise. To counter that argument, one thus would have to defend the claim that those who don’t take private funding are speaking for “the public” from the perspective of impartial spectators, as it were, rather than having agendas of their own. There are certainly academics for whom one can make this case, but it’s not clear that the argument can be generalized so easily. Ultimately, it’s an empirical question what kinds of biases exist and to what extent the infusion of private money is a “counterbalance” or leads to distortions.

The third worry, and one that is harder to reject, is the lack of transparency. Basically, it leads to a labeling problem: is what you get unbiased scholarship, or could it be something quite different? In other academic fields, it is standard procedure to lay open all sources of funding. In academic philosophy, we don’t seem to have shared norms around this (or at least I’m not aware of any). The sources of funding and governance structures of many research centers—e.g. whether or not funders are involved in the selection of candidates, or whether funding is tied to specific topics—are anything but transparent. This is problematic both inside and outside the academic discipline.

Inside the discipline, it has a problematic impact on the distribution of recognition and respect. All too often, we rank others (and maybe even ourselves) according to the numbers of publications, or the sums of grant money, instead of looking at the quality of arguments. Grant money and various forms of “output” seem to stand for academic excellence, or at least hard work (I would question whether they are the same). But this economy of recognition can be gamed by taking money that one receives for the wrong reasons—not for being an excellent (or hard-working) scholar, but for happening to hold views that corporate money finds worth sponsoring. This is in deep tension with the academic ethos.

Maybe even more dangerous, however, is the effect on the general public (and because many undergrads only ever take a few classes in political philosophy, similar issues arise there as well). These people usually expect to get reports that reflect the latest research consensus. What they might get instead might be the elements of a long-term propaganda campaign to shift public opinion, not out of deeply-held convictions, but for self-interested reasons (for some historical evidence on this campaign see e.g. here).

Last but not least, there is a worry about benefitting from injustice. For at least some of the sponsors of academic philosophy, one can raise serious questions about whether or not they should have earned this money in the first place. Some might hold that in a just society, taxes on capital income should be much higher than they currently are. Others might question cases in which that money was earned in environmentally damaging industries, which in a more just (and more efficient!) system would have to pay for the externalities from pollution and CO2 emissions, so that their profits would be far lower. One might thus ask whether accepting such money amounts to complicity or “dirty hands.”

As these arguments make clear, the matter is complex; the worries I’ve raised apply to a greater or lesser degree to different cases I am aware of. But one thing that seems clear is that academic philosophy needs to have an open debate about these issues. We cannot simply hide behind the claim that our work does not have public impact—apparently, at least some donors think that it does have enough of an impact to make the infusion of money worthwhile! In a sense, that’s good news. But we urgently need to address the moral questions that come with it!††


† Full disclosure: I accepted an invitation to be on the advisory board of a project on Adam Smith by the Liberty Fund. After having discussed it with other “left-wing” Smith scholars, I decided that it was better to be part of it than not.

†† I would like to thank Mark Reiff for very valuable discussions and feedback.

Art: Chad Person, “Monstro” (currency collage)


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GradGirl
GradGirl
3 years ago

Why is there a difference between private and state money? There is always an incentive to be nice towards the source of the money one gets. You might argue that state money, as opposed to private money, leaves open the aim of the investigation. However, this seems to be clearly false in many cases.

As to the “problem”. As long as these people get published in double-blind peer-reviewed journals, why should it matter who paid them? Even if someone only argues for P because he gets paid by some evil corporation, if her arguments are sound and valid, I don’t see what we get from making transparent who pays her. It would only move the discussion to the genesis of her ideas, which frankly, shouldn’t matter in philosophy.Report

Patrick Lin
Reply to  GradGirl
3 years ago

Exactly. And even within state funds, there’s a similar issue: do you accept funding from CIA, DoD, NSA, DHS, et al.? I’ve wrestled with that question before and concluded that it’s better to spend their money on ethics than to let them spend it on something else. Also, there have never been any conditions, guidance, or even much feedback from them about content, despite writing critically about their programs. (At least with the military service academies, e.g., Naval Academy, being critical of the defense programs seems to be very much part of the culture and is welcomed.)

If there were conditions on content, and you weren’t already predisposed to head in that direction, then the right thing to do, of course, is to decline the funding or otherwise resolve your conflict. And full disclosure of funding sources is essential and often required by funding programs anyway (free advertisement for them).

There’s something to be said about participating in policy or making change from within an organization, community, company, or industry. But pushing back from the outside is important, too. Deciding which way to go depends on the particulars of the situation; there’s no categorical moral judgment here given the many variables.Report

Lisa
Lisa
Reply to  Patrick Lin
3 years ago

Patrick, note that I didn’t say one should never take any money. But you actually point to a crucial difference between public and private money: for public money, there is a standard expectation that you disclose funding sources. I don’t think this is standardly the case when it comes to private money. I’m arguing that it should be!Report

Patrick Lin
Reply to  Lisa
3 years ago

Agree that all relevant financial and other relationships should be disclosed! Even if the grantmaking org doesn’t require it, universities, journals, etc. can require it.Report

Lisa
Lisa
Reply to  GradGirl
3 years ago

I wish peer review worked the way you assume it does! But even if it did, you’d have other questions that remain open. For example, textbooks are not always peer-reviewed. Fellowships, grants etc. (many things that are considered as proof of professional standing) are handed out in procedures that are not structured like peer-review. And these are often the conditions for having the time and getting the mentoring etc. for being able to write articles that make it through peer-review.Report

paidfor
paidfor
3 years ago

I think all the money in philosophy, from any source, is a good thing. I personally have accepted libertarian money, Templeton money, my university’s money, and humanity fund money. Never in any of these cases was I ever pressured to write in any particular way. There is just as much pressure in philosophy to say certain things because it is popular, because it is what big names say, because you know your university would like it. I would argue there is actually far more pressure from these sources.

As for government money, most is allocated by a committee that has political views of their own, usually left-leaning. When I have gotten money from my university fund it is almost always dependent upon the approval of left-leaning professors and administrators. Which I am of course okay with. I think our only options are to severely cut the amount of research in philosophy by accepting no money, or being fair and accepting all money.Report

Lisa
Lisa
Reply to  paidfor
3 years ago

“paidfor”, see my second point in the post – it’s an empirical question what biases might exist, and it differs from case to case. I’m arguing for transparency. Without transparency, we can’t even tell what the relevant amounts are, who gets them, what topics they work on with that money, etc.Report

Matt
Reply to  paidfor
3 years ago

“I personally have accepted libertarian money, Templeton money, my university’s money, and humanity fund money. Never in any of these cases was I ever pressured to write in any particular way.”

No doubt this is an accurate report of intuitions, and perhaps it’s even true. Many, many philosophers who get funding from a variety of sources say stuff like this, and I have no reason to doubt that they are accurately reporting their internal mental states, so they are not lying in anything like a normal way. But, on the other hand, there is now a pretty larger literature about how, say, doctors are influenced – without their knowing it – by drug company reps giving them small, even trivial gifts: note pads, mugs, etc. In the case of larger gifts – trips to conferences, dinners, funding for various things – the influence is higher, though again, with doctors almost all reporting no influence via introspection. (For a nice write-up, see M. Angell, “Drug Companies & Doctors: A Story of Corruption.” New York Review of Books, Jan 15, 2009.) Similar things have been found with bioethicists. What I want to ask is whether there is any reason to think that philosophers are not subject to the same sort of subtle, less than conscious influence. The pathways would be less clear than for doctors (“prescribe drug X” is easier to do than “argue for theory Y”, or “don’t argue against theory Z as strongly as you might”), but this very subtleness probably makes the self deception harder to find, too, especially when mixed with philosopher’s ability to argue for lots of different positions.

Does this mean that people taking grant money like this are (all) corrupt? Of course not. But, I do think it gives us some reason to worry, and gives us very good reason to discount first-person reports about how _of course_ one was not influenced at all by the money or the possibility of it. We should give very little credence to those at all, I think. And, we should all and each be more credulous to our own ability to resist influence as well.Report

Lisa
Lisa
Reply to  Matt
3 years ago

Thanks – that captures an important part of my worries very well (and I do worry about myself as well, for all the various sources of money, fashions, etc., that could influence me). And thanks for the reference!
If other fields put in place some safety measures that are relatively easy to do, such as full disclosure, I see no reason why philosophy shouldn’t do that.Report

paidfor
paidfor
3 years ago

By the way, as someone who has been to many liberty fund events, while we have discussed Nozick’s analogy of slavery and taxation, no one has ever tried to convince me to believe I am a slave to the government. I would argue that because these organizations are libertarian leaning (and openly so) it makes all the more sense for left leaning people who are offered their money to take it. After all, this way any influence that group might have is balanced out by the perspective of the left. Given your views, I think it was a mistake for you to resign your position. And I think it speaks in favor of the adam smith foundation you mention that they would ask you to be part of their governing body. Obviously they are not trying to create an environment where no alternative perspectives are allowed or respected. For goodness sake they wanted a lefty to be on their advisory board!Report

Lisa
Lisa
Reply to  paidfor
3 years ago

There is a tradeoff here between creating a balanced environment and providing a fig-leaf that allows organizations to present themselves as neutral when this is actually questionable. And trust me, it get’s a bit boring to be the token left wing person! Personally, I might have continued going if the workshops had been in normal academic environments. But these lush hotels felt a bit too much!Report

wondering
wondering
Reply to  Lisa
3 years ago

Really, you quit going to these events because they were in “lush hotels”? All the events I have been to were in Marriotts, Hiltons, and a few Westin’s. Nice hotels but nothing nicer than the APA. Do you not go to the apa too?Report

Lisa
Lisa
Reply to  wondering
3 years ago

Pretty lush compared to the hotels I would normally stay in as a grad student. I don’t go to APA for various reasons, but if I went, it would be from travel money from my home institution.
But my personal attitude to that really isn’t the point here, is it?Report

paidfor
paidfor
Reply to  Lisa
3 years ago

Lisa, nothing I have ever seen from Liberty Fund or related groups suggests to me they try to present themselves as “neutral.” They seem to be pretty open in their ideological leanings, and I have never seen them feature a left-wing person in some attempt to appear neutral. Please correct me if you know otherwise.Report

Lisa
Lisa
Reply to  paidfor
3 years ago

Liberty Fund and Institute for Humane Studies are pretty open on their websites. When I got their invitations, however, the emphasis was completely on the academic side (this is what I remember, my memory may fail me). My impression at the few workshops I went to was that it was a mixture of academics, where they seemed to try to achieve some reasonable balance between different positions, and then some non-academics (journalists, for example), who seemed all very far out on the pro-market-anti-government scale.
I’m more worried about the more covert forms of funding that the articles I linked to at the beginning of the blog describe. There seems to be a whole ecosystem of organizations, and I wouldn’t want to throw them all into the same category.Report

Chris Surprenant
Chris Surprenant
3 years ago

I’ll start taking these concerns seriously when folks on the left start protesting external funding for centers and chairs that focus on “social justice,” environmental issues, etc. Until then, I’ll continue to think that this is just party politics playing out in a different sphere.

It’s very simple: If you’re a serious academic, the only test is to judge the work on its merits. If dollars are funding garbage work or political activism, then it has no place in the university. But if the dollars are funding good stuff, why does it matter where the money to fund it comes from? If anything, we should be praising the people who fund good work.Report

Brian Weatherson
Reply to  Chris Surprenant
3 years ago

The test of “just ask whether it funds good works” ignores opportunity costs. Imagine that a philosopher is deciding whether to write on topic A or topic B. She’d write a good book on either, but the book on A would be better, and she suspects this is so. But a foundation offers a $1,000,000 prize for the best book in B, and this encourages her to write the B book. And it is good; she’s a good philosopher. It wins the prize!

Should we then say “Good work foundation; your prize encouraged a great book”? Well no; in the example the foundation made things worse by making the B book rather than the A book get written. And that’s true even though by the test “Are the dollars funding good stuff”, the foundation is doing great.

That’s in general the problem with thinking about funding decisions (public or private). The primary costs are opportunity costs, and evaluating them requires evaluating counterfactuals that we’re really in no position to evaluate.Report

Tom Hurka
Tom Hurka
Reply to  Brian Weatherson
3 years ago

Of course there can be the same opportunity costs when philosophical fashion prompts someone to write on topic B rather than A, and I suspect that happens much more often.Report

Brian Weatherson
Reply to  Brian Weatherson
3 years ago

Yes I agree. And that can be even more pernicious. After all, it’s the felt fashions as much as the actual fashions, and it can be hard to know who exactly to blame for a feeling among writers, or what can be done to change those feelings.Report

Alan White
Alan White
Reply to  Brian Weatherson
3 years ago

Strenuously protecting tenure is one factor here, though of course that is no armor in itself against publishing fashions. But having fought first-hand representing half of the campuses in UW System against attacks on tenure here in Wisconsin–and pretty unsuccessfully–I know that there are powerful forces afoot to frame opportunity-costs questions about pushing research-topic boundaries and in very practical terms, not just for TT faculty, but tenured people as well by ultimately administratively-controlled post-tenure review. Tenure here in UW is significantly weaker than it was, and that has some very practical impact on how academics plot their careers, even post-Assistant Prof.Report

Lisa
Lisa
Reply to  Chris Surprenant
3 years ago

Chris, as to whether I’d also care about left-wing money: there’s probably no way I could convince you that yes, I would care – so I won’t try.
Brian and Tom, I agree with the point about opportunity costs, and also that there are various reasons for distortions. And I fully agree with Alan that that tenure is crucial for keeping academics independent. It’s probably the best bet we have for maintaining a diverse research landscape in which various avenues are explored.Report

Chris Surprenant
Chris Surprenant
Reply to  Lisa
3 years ago

Lisa, come on, that’s nonsense. At least own up to what you’re doing here. If you cared about the general role funding plays in influencing academic research, your piece would look very different than it does. You focus on two organizations with classically liberal interests, and then further suggest that where the money to support these organizations comes from is somehow morally problematic. (I still don’t understand how producing paper and petroleum-based products is somehow morally worse than currency manipulation–maybe you can explain that to me.)

The worst is the your suggestion that faculty members sympathetic to these views are (1) effectively pushing propaganda in their scholarship and their classes, and (2) not transparent about where funding to support some of their research comes from. This is just garbage. I don’t know anyone who receives funding from the organizations you mention, or other similar organizations, who doesn’t openly disclose where their funding comes from. To suggest otherwise, and to suggest that these faculty members are somehow pushing propaganda and are not producing serious scholarship, is absurd.Report

wondering
wondering
Reply to  Chris Surprenant
3 years ago

Your claim “I don’t know anyone who receives funding from the organizations you mention, or other similar organizations, who doesn’t openly disclose where their funding comes from” – does this claim extend to centers as well? Cursory browsing Smith Institute, Freedom Center, Political Theory project etc. suggests that transparency about funding could still be improved?Report

Good Guy
Good Guy
3 years ago

I don’t like the bad guys to get the money. I like the good guys to get the money.Report

Lisa
Lisa
Reply to  Good Guy
3 years ago

Good Guy, I’m more modest: I just want it to be possible to know who gets money for what 🙂Report

Good Guy
Good Guy
Reply to  Lisa
3 years ago

Sounds good. Would help us spot the bad guys.Report

Rick
Rick
3 years ago

I think we need to see more about the scale of the possible distortions before this becomes worrisome to me. I suppose I might be worried if a billion dollars in funding was made available every year to endow chairs in libertarian political philosophy and otherwise reshape the face of political philosophy by funding an army of libertarian philosophers. But without seeing the relevant numbers, it’s hard for me to fret. I’m not sure why these philosophers should be taken to be less honest or less reliable than philosophers funded by other sources with institutional biases and preferences.

Further, the reverse distortion seems at least as plausible to me: people unable to attract funding from private sources and thus consigned to state funding might be motivated to argue, or argue more vociferously, that private funding (or capitalism) is immoral, dishonest, or otherwise worthy of criticism. But it would be ungenerous to assume that.Report

Lisa
Lisa
Reply to  Rick
3 years ago

Well there you are – without transparency, how can we know the scale of possible distortions? And I acknowledge your second point in my post. Insofar as this was supposed to be an ad hominem: no worries, I’ve taken money from various public AND private sources 🙂Report

Rick
Rick
Reply to  Lisa
3 years ago

It wasn’t intended to be an ad hominem at all. I’m not actually sure what seemed like an attack on you personally.

My point about the transparency issue isn’t that I’m opposed to it, but rather than the post so emphasizes the alleged danger from libertarian philosophers getting money that it strikes me as politically one-sided, without giving me a reason to think that there is an actual distortion occurring. And like others have said, this does come off as politically slanted. You may very well be equally concerned about *all* money in philosophy and only happen to have picked libertarian groups because that’s who you’re familiar with. Some of us, however, are used to having our political views talked about like they’re just a thin, slipping mask for greed, white supremacy, and other odious motivations. So without commentary on external funding of e.g. Marxism or left-leaning or authoritarian politics, the piece comes off a bit as criticizing libertarian leanings as particularly suspect. In other words, it sounds like “now that I’ve realized this disfavored group is getting external funding, I’m really troubled by external funding!”

Like I said, this focus is probably a byproduct of who happens to have funded you personally. But I’m sure you can see how it seems to fit neatly into a larger, common academic narrative which is anti-libertarian, anti-capitalist, and so forth.Report

Lisa
Lisa
Reply to  Rick
3 years ago

I focused on that case because there seems to be a shift going on there, which I took as an occasion to write about it. I am actually not aware of Marxist funders. I’m aware of one that you might call “left leaning”, the Independent Social Research Foundation. For authoritarian ones, you’ll probably find money in Russia if you’re really after it… But again, let’s have more transparency, and we’ll know more about it!
I’m not sure whether the complaints about everyone being so harsh on the poor libertarians are well-founded, given what’s happening in the US, but that’s another issueReport

Rick
Rick
Reply to  Lisa
3 years ago

What’s going on in the US is the rise of a populist authoritarian. It’s not clear to me how that is supposed to show that in academia, people are not derisive toward the “poor libertarians” (which I gather I should not take to express any derision, either).Report

Lisa
Lisa
Reply to  Rick
3 years ago

It was not meant in a derisive way, no, but it’s difficult to get across humor in comments. And I meant what’s going on in terms of, let’s say, “capacity building” for libertarian philosophers – the claim that they are some kind of oppressed minority is often used to justify extra funding. I wish, though, libertarians would distance themselves more clearly from the broader political currents on the right. Some do, and you seem to be among them!Report

Daniel Kaufman
3 years ago

Why is ‘classical liberal’ put in scare-quotes?Report

Lisa
Lisa
Reply to  Daniel Kaufman
3 years ago

Because they use the term, so it’s a quote. But also because it’s not immediately obvious that everything they do deserves that honorific. It’s one of these terms, like “freedom”, that have positive associations, and that are therefore coveted by groups with various political leanings…Report

David Jacobs
3 years ago

In my neighborhood (Washington DC), libertarian funding has reshaped the business ethics discipline. The Catholic University Business School has become an outpost of the Acton Institute. The faculty are predictable in their interpretation of Catholic Social Doctrine. The history of labor priests has been erased and solidarity has been redefined as a species of marketing. Spaces for business ethics instructors who are not mere celebrants for entrepreneurs is non-existent at Catholic and shrinking nearby.Report

Lisa
Lisa
Reply to  David Jacobs
3 years ago

David, it seems that for topics at the intersection with economics (business ethics, PPE) this issue is most pressing. It’s a good thing that political and moral philosophy are expanding in this area, and often becoming more “applied” or “non-ideal” as well. But that makes the questions about private funding even more urgent!Report

Owen Schaefer
Owen Schaefer
3 years ago

For a nice analysis of how industry ties can create bias without corrupting any individual researcher, see Bennett Holman and Justin Bruner, “Experimentation by Industrial Selection”, Philosophy of Science 84(5):1008-1019. I presume their model also applies to ideologically-driven funding.

On transparency – funding disclosure is certainly the norm in many disciplines. I wasn’t aware that philosophy journals don’t require funding source disclosure – in bioethics journals (my own sub-discipline), it’s quite standard, along with a Conflict of Interest declaration. Perhaps it’s time for a norm shift?

That having been said, disclosure of funding sources only goes so far. The publication at the centre of the latest Volkswagen scandal involving questionable human and monkey exposure to nitrogen dioxide acknowledges the “European Research Group on Environment and Health in the Transport Sector” funding, but it is not made clear (until now) that that group was in fact an arm of the Volkswagen lobbying machine.

But at least funds like Liberty Fund and Institute of Humane Studies are transparent about their ideology; if such a line appears in an article, I think most readers can surmise the slant of the funder.Report

GradGirl
GradGirl
3 years ago

I still have a major understanding issue. Transparency, or knowing who gets paid how much by whom, seems to be no end in itself with regards to this discussion. It rather looks like a precondition for action. First we need to know who gets what, and then, after having seen that there is indeed a “problem”, we do something to rectify the “problem”.

Now, assume that the academic system works better (let’s say it works good), especially concerning peer-review, book-deals and so on. Then no matter how much money you throw at it (via super-funded libertarians, or what have you), they either do good research and get published, or they fail and the money is wasted. I like both disjuncts here. I would find it much better for the discipline if we could just improve the academic system instead of forcing people to tell who paid them to engage in whatever this is about. (Exclusion or a “fairer” distribution of research-money from private institutions? Both stink)Report

Lisa
Lisa
Reply to  GradGirl
3 years ago

Right now, we have no transparency, so action is needed to get there, as a precondition for further action. I’m all in favor of improving the academic system when it comes to peer review, fair equality of opportunities, etc. I see the issue of private money as one piece in these broader endeavors, and I see them as intertwined (because academia, to a large degree, is an economy of recognition and attention). So far, I haven’t see any argument *against* transparency about funding!Report

GradGirl
GradGirl
Reply to  Lisa
3 years ago

So I’m right in that this is about further action. The point I was making is that private money ceases to be a problem in a (instrumentally) good academic system, so we should focus our energy there. The actions resulting from the transparency seem to be bad for the discipline, so we shouldn’t put our focus there.Report

Lisa
Lisa
Reply to  GradGirl
3 years ago

What’s your argument for thinking that “the actions resulting from the transparency seem to be bad for the discipline”?Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  GradGirl
3 years ago

But transparency is fairly easy to define, fairly easy to implement, and just involves coming into conformity with a norm already in place elsewhere in academia, whereas making the academic system “(instrumentally) good” is an open-ended and very contentious task.Report

Ryan Muldoon
3 years ago

I have no particular problem with a call for transparency of funding sources. I don’t really see anyone hiding their funding (after all, as Lisa points out, funding is generally seen as something that raises people’s relative status, so they have an incentive to talk about it!), but maybe I’m wrong.

However, the way the discussion is framed by Lisa (as I understand her – my apologies if I am missing something) may serve to compound bias rather than eliminate it. As some others have pointed out, money is but one source of bias. There are also philosophical trends and fads and perceived higher-status subjects and positions to hold, all of which do a lot of work to frame what a person does. At a trivial level, one’s training and exposure in undergrad and grad school does a lot to shape one’s views, interests, and methods. But, if as Matt points out, we suffer from all kinds of subtle affective shifts based on even small gifts (and I think this is true), then surely, someone buying you a beer (or even just giving you time as a junior person) at a conference, or inviting you on a panel, or inviting you for a talk and offering a small honorarium, etc, are all far more common (and pernicious) sources of bias. In the American context, we’ve got a ranking system for PhD departments, with implied judgments about who/what does more to contribute to higher rankings. That’s probably a much bigger deal than a relative handful of grants.

In a call for transparency, it’s worth thinking about what it is we are looking to curb, and what are the relevant contributors to that ill effect. Let’s suppose it is bias from any source that we’re worried about, and perhaps a metric for overall direction of bias. So, if we were to make a little marker for this to put on researcher websites, do we just include granting agencies? (By far the biggest source of external money for me is from development agencies – I’m not sure what the political valence of that is, other than “globalist” I suppose. But that’s not even my primary academic area.) Do we include all the honoraria one has received? Locations of talks? Positive/encouraging emails?

This strikes me as very similar to debates about food labeling in the US. Do we mark what foods are “GMO” even if that doesn’t clearly track any kind of nutritional consequence? I’ve seen labels for “Non-GMO” salt, which is obviously absurd. My worry is that if we come up with some accounting of “bias free” or something to that effect, it is just a tool to make one’s own bias seem neutral, or to retrench the authority of the group that comes up with the label.

Philosophy is in a relatively fortunate position compared to many other disciplines, in that for the most part, we don’t need much money to do our work. Grants are *nice* to get, and certainly can make deans happy, but in the US at least, they are far from a requirement at the vast majority of schools. I can appreciate that people who do get grants can have an easier time doing some work (thanks to reduced teaching or maybe postdocs working on the same topic or whatever it might be), but that one got a grant doesn’t make it any easier to get accepted in, say, Ethics or PPA (or any other top journal), nor does it make it more likely that one’s work is cited by others, etc. Giving talks and being on panels and things like that probably do help with that sort of thing. Networks of support for certain ideas or methods make doing more work of that kind easier and more rewarding. It is likely the case that the reason there is some libertarian money available is to build those networks of support, but it’s certainly not the case that that’s the only, or even biggest network of support in academic philosophy. None of us are without bias, nor do I think there’s a good way to eliminate it in individuals. It’s useful to recognize that.Report

Lisa
Lisa
Reply to  Ryan Muldoon
3 years ago

Ryan, of course there are many kinds of biases, and not all of them can/should easily be categorized. But the influx of money is rather easy to measure, and I still haven’t heard any argument that would speak against transparency (you sound like you’d want to get rid of transparency requirements in other fields as well – is that the case? If not, why should philosophy be different?). It’s great that there is a now a lot of work that makes these various mechanisms more transparent, e.g. by Helen de Cruz on prestige bias, and the stuff by Kieran Healy on citation patterns. We will never get fully rid of such things, we’re all just human beings. But that’s no reason not to think about our professional norms and the social structures we work in.
And by the way, I had no idea that philosophers can get money from development agencies. Which leads me to the thought that an additional reason for why it’s good if such financial sources are publicized is that it gives others a chance to learn about it. This might not be in the interest of those who get funding, because it might increase competition (not in this particular case, no worries), but that’s no good reason against it, is it?Report

Ryan Muldoon
Reply to  Lisa
3 years ago

Hi Lisa,
As I note in my first sentence, I have no problem with transparency of funding. As far as I know, I don’t think anyone hides it either. It’s on CV’s, and very typically funding agencies require people receiving funds to credit them in acknowledgements of talks or papers. If people ever want to go back to the same funding well, it’s in their interest to credit their funders. I’m fine with this. But if we are to compare ourselves to other disciplines when we are looking at bias, they usually include extra things beyond funding as well in making decisions about whether you can, for instance, consider someone’s tenure case or their funding application and so on. They care about whether you’re direct competitors, whether you’re co-authors or are in a mentor-mentee relationship, or co-edited volumes, etc. There’s some attempt to capture whether you’ve got reasons to support or block this person or project’s advancement separate from what an evaluation on the merits would indicate.

What I am taking issue with is that the way you presented your case, it sure made it sound like this funding issue was *the* or at least the primary source of bias in the discipline, which I think is surely mistaken. I’m generally of the view that we can’t get rid of biases, and it’s better to let them fight it out a bit in the broader discourse, rather than pretend individuals can achieve some neutral standard. The pretense of neutrality is itself dangerous, as it is a powerful cudgel to wield against one’s opponents. (My book _Social Contract Theory for a Diverse World_ talks about this concern at some length) It makes it very easy for an entrenched position to remain entrenched. So, insofar as the reason to label funding is to use that as a stand-in for bias, it allows us to track one kind of bias and forget about the rest of it (which I would argue that in our discipline is much larger). This is why I likened it to nutritional labeling. I don’t object to the presence of a label, but I do want to point out that we need to be careful with what we put on it, as that structures a lot of important choices. Making funding the big thing, as opposed to those other structures of support, implicitly buoys those other biases. I highly doubt that our current economy of recognition cares one way or another how much grant money you or I have received (though deans surely do). Grants in science are a bigger deal because they allow scientists to do their work in the first place. Being good at getting grants means that you’re in a good position to produce work. That’s just not our situation (at least in the US). Producing philosophy just doesn’t cost very much, barring a few edge cases. So, when we’re considering status, much more likely people in our profession care about what journals we publish in and what departments we’re in, and additionally what social/professional circle we’re in – who thinks well of us does a lot of work. While it’s relatively easy to measure things like journals and departments, the social network parts are far more obscure.

So, my worry is that by doing a partial job on bias reduction, we make the problems of bias worse, not better. This is especially true if the different forms of bias are un- or anti-correlated with each other.

I’d be delighted if more philosophers did work with development agencies though!Report

Lisa
Lisa
Reply to  Ryan Muldoon
3 years ago

I do accept the point that there are various forms of biases; I’m not sure I share your picture about how much (or how little, from your perspective) money matters compared to other things – basically, my worry here is that money often allows you to compete better along the other dimensions, and hence can seep into other evaluation scales.
And I don’t aspire to any Platonic ideal of neutrality, no worries. But you write “it’s better to let them [the biases] fight it out a bit in the broader discourse” – and I worry about this being overly optimistic (hello, invisible hand?). At the very least, we need to know what fights are actually being fought, or – to use an even more martial metaphor – who is fighting with which weapons.Report

GradGirl
GradGirl
Reply to  Lisa
3 years ago

I’m sorry for being so stubborn and I appreciate your replies to my questions. Why does grant money allow one to compete better? It would seem to me that the only interesting difference is between philosophers without any money and those that get paid. As soon as you get enough money to pay for your things, how does more money improve your work? I certainly don’t publish more just because I get more money. A nicer office, great colleagues etc. might help with publishing, but just the amount of money in my bank-account?Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  GradGirl
3 years ago

It’s pretty unusual (in my experience, maybe I work in the wrong field though?!) for much or any of a research grant to be directly salary. Mostly what it pays for is travel money, conferences, graduate scholarships, postdocs and release from teaching and service duties.Report

Owen Schaefer
Owen Schaefer
Reply to  GradGirl
3 years ago

Well, funding may certainly go directly to the salaries of post-docs and other soft-money research staff (like myself); and soft-money researchers will at least in part be incentivized by higher pay in one grant-funded post or scheme compared to another. But of course that just gets to funding’s purpose in attracting the most productive researchers to a project, rather than padding their coffers.

That having been said, my own institution does have individual annual bonuses that in theory could be affected by how much money one brings in to the institution, and even a formula for department-level group bonuses, with grant money brought in as one factor. Again, though, I think the idea is to incentivize successful grant applications, which are seen as good for the institution’s research productivity as a whole, rather than to enrich faculty/staff as an end in itself.Report

Lisa
Lisa
Reply to  GradGirl
3 years ago

As David Wallace says – the money gives you the opportunity to do more work (by buying you out of other duties), or to get feedback on your work to improve it (by getting mentoring or travel money to go to conferences), all of which means that you have an advantage in the publication game that others don’t have.Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  GradGirl
3 years ago

To Owen Schaefer: I misspoke, sorry. Of course plenty of the grant goes to salaries for researchers (even more so if you treat PhD grants as in part salaries); but it’s rare for any of it to go to the PI on the grant, or to other already-salaried faculty. (That was the category that seemed relevant to GradGirl’s original enquiry.)Report

Ben
Ben
3 years ago

The work of Dalyian Cain & colleagues has been influential in raising concerns about the sufficiency of transparency and full disclosure of conflicts of interest (COI). Specifically, Cain et al. have published data supporting the concern that robust COI disclosures can actually serve as a moral license for the discloser to accentuate bias (caveat lector), and even with robust disclosure, readers/listeners “insufficiently” discount advice/arguments proffered by those disclosing COIs due to a phenomenon they call “insinuation anxiety.” Insinuation anxiety is the tension inherent in not wanting to think ill of, or openly mistrust, the advice of someone declaring a COI. It is typically applied to the attitudes of patients toward their physicians who declare a financial COI. Perhaps the give-and-take of argument and disagreement still extant in many philosophy departments makes this slightly less of a generic concern. But, it wouldn’t be difficult to imagine (perceived or actual) power differentials, or friendships which might foreground insinuation anxiety as a worry. Your mileage may vary. Also, insert asterisk regarding the replication crisis in social psychology here.

Elsewhere, Cain et al. have tried to show there are conditions under which readers/listeners can “sufficiently” discount COI-containing advice, but their preferred scenario is one where advice with- and without-COI are offered side-by-side, with the COI and lack of same underscored in the same presentation.

Cain’s best known article, “The Dirt on Coming Clean,” is available here: http://www.andrew.cmu.edu/user/gl20/GeorgeLoewenstein/Papers_files/pdf/dirtclean.pdfReport

Owen Schaefer
Owen Schaefer
Reply to  Ben
3 years ago

The empirical question of the effect of COI declarations is important. Cain et al.’s work, though, at least as cited above isn’t clearly applicable to academic articles. It’s about personal advice on product valuation. For a study on effects on academic readers’ perception in the medical context, see Chaundry et al. 2002, “Does declaration of competing interests affect readers’ perceptions? A randomised trial”, http://www.bmj.com/content/325/7377/1391.1.short . Kesselheim et al. 2012 found similar results among physicians interpreting articles for the purpose of prescription: http://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMsa1202397.

This is somewhat in line with the “sophisticated recipient” mitigating idea proposed in the linked Cain et al piece; academic readers are indeed sophisticated, and so could appropriately use the COI declaration to adjust credence. It may also have to do with the very different interpersonal dynamics, between personal advice tailored to the individual and impersonal information presented in an article. In any case, we should be more confident that COI declarations in academic articles will have a meaningful effect than in other contexts.

Given that, I think requirements for COI/funding declarations are still warranted for academic articles. Again, philosophy should really conform to other academic norms here – as David Wallace notes above, it’s not super-complicated to implement such standards.Report

Lisa
Lisa
Reply to  Owen Schaefer
3 years ago

Thanks, Ben, and thanks Owen for replying in a much better way than I could have. Look, I’m not saying that transparency would solve all problems. We’re only starting to understand all these various mechanisms, and how they interact with each other. We might need to do more than just disclose sources of funding and conflicts of interest (and in the end, I think rules and formalities can only go so far, and it’s also a question of academic ethos). We’ll never completely rule out all problems. But we should try to catch up with the practices in other fields, and we should keep watching what this does, and discuss about possible next steps (and as I said in an earlier reply, I don’t think it’s the only, or even most important, problem of the profession. It’s just one among many issues we should work on!)Report

Ben
Ben
Reply to  Owen Schaefer
3 years ago

I hope its clear, (but perhaps not), that casting doubt on the purported virtues of declaring COIs amounts to opposing requirements for disclosure. But, I think Cain’s work and the articles you (Owen) cite raise a different concern, underscored in the study by Kesselheim: Declarations of outside funding sources tend to serve up social cues, billed as a mark of sophistication, for readers/listeners to downgrade a priori (and if Kesselheim et al. are to be believed, incorrectly) the veracity and value of empirical work conducted under such auspices.

I think the studies you cite show that even a “sophisticated” audience will avail themselves of a heuristic of suspicion, one which saves busy individuals a lot of time and trouble delving into details. The extent to which this inexpensive sophistication is *generally* reliable in bringing one closer to assessing veracity and value is not clear (to me, anyway). Maybe the closer-to-right answer (per Lisa) is that COI declarations should themselves be treated with a certain skepticism and care by the reader/listener, as offering an easy temptation to cynicism and suspicion with the understanding that such comportments may be useful, or may be decidedly misleading, in assessing veracity and value. Consider that a negative thesis: Treating COI declarations in this way doesn’t necessarily getting one very far along the veracity/value line, but instead is an opportunity to avoid inexorably falling into interpretive error right away.Report

Ben
Ben
Reply to  Ben
3 years ago

Should be: “….casting doubt….DOESN’T amount to opposing requirements for disclosure.”Report

harry b
3 years ago

Ryan’s point that we are lucky in philosophy because we don’t need grants cuts both ways. It means we are easy to buy.

I worked for 8 years with the Spencer Foundation, a foundation devoted to sponsoring education research, to support philosophy of education. Our aim was not at all to support the work that was already being done, but to build the field by prompting known (and good) philosophers to make forays into the field, and by finding good not-known young philosophers and giving them support doing related work, through grants, and through convenings (which were an important part of this –building a cohort/network of people),. The then-new (now retired) President of the foundation is an economist who knows philosophy well (he co-founded the journal Economics and Philosophy), and he identified the weakness of the field, and judged, rightly, that it would be a very very cheap field to make a big impact on — precisely because we are paid so much less than social scientists and because small grants could go a long way. And as Brian says: opportunity costs! We were deliberately trying to get good philosophers to do different work than they would otherwise do.

I don’t know how much we spent over 8 years — maybe $5 million, maybe more including overheads. Nothing compared with the money the Liberty Fund or Templeton have available..

That said: think about how much money American universities spend annually on philosophy research. Take the top 50 (or 60, or however many) departments, add together the annual staffing budgets (include fellowships, graduate stipends, and admin staff costs, because those are all related) and multiply by 2/5 (or 3/5 if you are as cynical as I am about the priority undergraduate teaching). Now think about who sets the agenda for that research — a fairly small set of faculty members in a fairly small number of departments produce a disproportionate number of the PhDs who work in research universities. That’s all stuff that won’t get captured in a disclosure.

In my experience, funding sources request/demand disclosure. (disclosure, I’ve received money from Templeton, Liberty Fund, Spencer Foundation, Carnegie Corporation and, indirectly, Gates).Report

Lisa
Lisa
Reply to  harry b
3 years ago

Harry, as I said, I’m not against all forms of private money. It seems that case, apart from the question of opportunity costs, it’s all transparent and the case can be made that philosophy of education is a field that deserved to be expanded. What we should acknowledge, in this case and in others, is that it is to some degree a matter of luck whether or not there are sponsors around who are interested in a certain topic – and that not all philosophers are going to be that lucky, without thereby being worse philosophers.
There are other issues about what happens if foundations (I’m thinking of the Gates Foundation, about which I’ve read a bit, without any deeper knowledge) have a massive impact on policy areas such as education. These are well-known issues of democratic theory, but at some distance from the pure funding of research.Report

Ryan Muldoon
Reply to  Lisa
3 years ago

I agree with everything Harry said, but with the addendum that you can get philosophers to work on topics that you’d like them to work on without much money at all, and this is done all the time. Special journal issues, edited volumes, conferences with a particular theme, panels at larger conferences – all of those encourage work on certain topics. Inviting a person to contribute to an edited volume costs the publisher one copy of the book. Chances are, most of the people who accept those invitations weren’t just about to write a paper of that length on that topic. I’d bet that if a junior person got a couple of invites on some topic, that person would plausibly decide that this was an AOC for them, and they’d keep doing work on it independent of more invitations, to capitalize on what they’ve already done. Should we as a profession more carefully screen who is proposing these books and conferences? There are plenty that aren’t to my taste, but I can just not go to those conferences or read those books.

Lisa, in your response to Harry, it sounds more like you do have in mind that certain funders are ok, and certain fields are worthy of expansion, but certain other funders aren’t ok and certain other fields shouldn’t be expanded. I’m concerned about how those judgments get made.

Likewise, yes, certain areas of philosophy might be more amenable to getting grant money. But it’s equally true that certain areas of philosophy (and methods of philosophy, etc) are more amenable to publication in top journals, or are of interest to more fellow philosophers at the present time, etc. We obviously don’t need to make judgments about who is a better or worse philosopher based on this. (We could also just not waste our time ranking ourselves.)

Fairly overwhelmingly, I would say that the much much bigger distinction in ability to produce work is one’s base teaching load and the availability of TAs. Some of us are fortunate to have 2-2 teaching loads (and some have lower than that!), and some people have 4-4 (or more). Likewise, some of us have children, and some others do not, and that can shape how much one can work in the evening or on weekends. Those differences are way way way more common than who has grants that buy out teaching compared to those who don’t. If you’re worried about the perceived injustice of the availability of grant money, we might want to worry first about the much larger sources of inequality that shape our ability to produce work.Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Ryan Muldoon
3 years ago

“Some of us are fortunate to have 2-2 teaching loads (and some have lower than that!), and some people have 4-4 (or more). Likewise, some of us have children, and some others do not, and that can shape how much one can work in the evening or on weekends. Those differences are way way way more common than who has grants that buy out teaching compared to those who don’t. If you’re worried about the perceived injustice of the availability of grant money, we might want to worry first about the much larger sources of inequality that shape our ability to produce work.”

I didn’t think that “injustice” in that sense was playing any role in the OP. (The only mention there of injustice is the very different issue of benefitting from unjustly-earned money.)

It’s possible to be completely sanguine about the way academia implements a division of labor, with some jobs being much more research-oriented than others, and still be concerned about the effects of external funding in distorting the pattern of research done; conversely, it’s possible to feel passionately that division of labor in academic jobs is profoundly wrong and that everyone should have the same teaching load, while being totally relaxed about what topics people publish on.Report

Ryan Muldoon
Reply to  David Wallace
3 years ago

David, I was responding to Lisa’s comment: “What we should acknowledge, in this case and in others, is that it is to some degree a matter of luck whether or not there are sponsors around who are interested in a certain topic – and that not all philosophers are going to be that lucky, without thereby being worse philosophers.”

I agree that grants (whether external or internal, public or private) can shape research. If they didn’t, no one would waste their money. (I’m even funded by NSF to explore the effect of different monetary incentive structures on riskier, more ambitious academic work, based in part on some papers on the division of cognitive labor that I co-wrote.) My point was just that if we’re worried about research being, as you say, “distorted,” there are reasons to think that there are more, bigger, distortions elsewhere in the system. People would likely make at least somewhat different choices about what to work on with a different set of incentives in front of them. Not all incentives are pecuniary, and in our field, we’re largely insulated from *needing* money to do our work, so other incentives might loom larger for us. If the goal is just transparency of the incentive structure, I don’t know of any granting agency that asks that its money be hidden, and every one that I’ve dealt with requires publicity of the funding. Likewise, universities in general have COI declarations that require professors to list where they’ve gotten money from. But plenty of the incentives that shape our work are broadly hidden from view, and are pretty powerful.Report

Wondering
Wondering
3 years ago

No your thoughts on hotels don’t matter much, I was just curious.

Relating to the broader point: I guess I’m fine with a note about funding for the sake of transparency. I wouldn’t be against it. But is it not just as likely to work against good philosophy as for it? I think this is grad girls point. Suppose I write a paper. I then add something like “Mercatus money allowed me time to write this paper.” Presumably that sentence will not effect any arguments in my paper. But it might effect how some people perceive these arguments, which does not seem a good thing. (This is much different from experiment driven research, where disclosures could point to the possibility that an experiment might be set up in a biased way even thought that bias might be otherwise be undetectable in the publication.)Report

Lisa
Lisa
Reply to  Wondering
3 years ago

Well, what makes you so optimistic that bias that “might be otherwise undetectable in the publication” does not play a role in philosophy? That seems to assume a picture of purity of arguments, as compared to experiments, that I find hard to accept. We could talk about all kinds of ways in which philosophical arguments could be biased in not-immediately-obvious ways.
But let’s assume that this is indeed the case – it’s still valuable information, if only in order to see how many articles, on which topics, are sponsored by the Mercatus foundation. Some people have said that the problem does not (yet) seem big enough to require action. But we can’t know how big it is, and whether or not there are trends in a certain direction, without disclosure. I think the importance of understanding such possible trends, as a field, outweighs the worries about possible negative effects of disclosure.Report

wondering
wondering
Reply to  Lisa
3 years ago

Yes, perhaps the benefits outweigh the negatives. I am unsure but perhaps. Still, I could imagine, for instance, a disclosure warning in a scientific experiment paper might key people off to something like the falling: the particular subjects the experimenters selected were biased. Since most experiments involve the selection of subjects, it is easy to see how bias could make this step go wrong. And while I know philosophy arguments are not always “pure”, I guess I can’t think of an example where an argument would be a different argument once I knew where the funding came from. But I would love to hear an example to convince me otherwise.Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  wondering
3 years ago

The following two claims cannot plausibly be true together:

1) philosophers are so good at insulating against bias that their arguments are not affected even if they are funded by organisations with known political views.
2) philosophers are so bad at insulating against bias that they cannot read a paper objectively once they know that its author is funded by an organization with known political views.

FWIW I am pretty sanguine about the effects of external funding – I think we have a big complicated ecosystem and the first-order effects of increased research swamp the various second-order effects of bias, particularly given the many different sources of bias. But for that very reason, transparency sounds a thoroughly good idea. If we don’t think external funding is a problem, what’s to hide?Report