Research freedom an open question

About half of the University of Otago's agricultural research is funded by industry. Is all that money having an undue influence on research findings - and what gets researched in the first place? Reporter Carla Green investigates.

Rebecca* is a researcher at the University of Otago.

And she, like many researchers, has taken money from the agricultural industry.

In fact, she says some of her research would not have been possible without industry support - financial and otherwise.

But the University of Otago and an agricultural industry research funder both say researchers are not affected by industry pressure.

The funding does not come with those kinds of strings attached, they say, and researchers' ethical codes protect them from any such influence in any case.

Rebecca has had a different experience.

She has been involved with one of about 12 agricultural research projects at the University of Otago that are industry-funded in any given year.

And for the most part, she says, industry support has helped her get the information and access she needs to do meaningful research.

But it has also hindered her work.

"The problem is it also adds all kinds of diplomatic and organisational constraints in my work, which mean that it takes longer to do any research, because you have to have the ‘OK' from the industry to publish results, or information, to start a project, to go talk to people,'' she says.

And then, there is the question of what gets published. In one case, Rebecca says, she has had to "bury'' certain findings because of how her industry funders might react to them.

"We published the results in a 'politically correct' kind of way,'' she says.

"They're not emphasised.''

Nobody told her she had to bury the results, Rebecca says.

It is more subtle than that.

Everything is "understood''.

"It's not just that they've paid for my project, but also that they're paying for projects at the university, and the university wants to continue those projects, too,'' she says.

Burying the findings - or letting funding affect her research in any way - bothers her.

But she is pragmatic about it.

"On the one hand, yes, it bothers me, ethically. But on the other hand, I understand. Because of our relationship with the industry group, we've been able to develop a really good idea of what's going on.''

Another agricultural researcher who was aware of Rebecca's situation confirmed what Rebecca had to say.

"It's not that there are things you absolutely cannot say,'' the researcher says.

"There's just a sense of if you do say them, it's going to make other people's lives really complicated and might actually challenge your ability to get funding in the future.''

The researcher has seen people in that very situation, she says.

"A couple of things have happened in relation to research where someone has said something the industry hasn't liked - somebody around us - and we can see them getting [blacklisted],'' she says.

"We want to keep that relationship [with the industry funders] healthy, so we can continue to do research.''

And keeping that relationship healthy, she says, means "downplaying certain things''.

"It does definitely shape what we say and what we don't say.''

And University of Canterbury agricultural researcher Prof Jack Heinemann says there are researchers in Rebecca's situation across the tertiary sector - not just at Otago, and not just in agriculture.

Industry influence in research is widespread, he says.

In fact, he thinks that figures provided to the Otago Daily Times that show industry funds about half of all Otago agricultural research projects were probably an underestimate.

Depending on how "industry'' is defined - in the ODT's request, it was defined as "private companies involved in agriculture'' - numbers can vary.

But, no matter the definition of "industry'', Prof Heinemann says, one thing is clear: "the effect of the source of funding is significant''.

"There's been statistics published in many prestigious journals that show that there's two kinds of effects. There's the effect of finding - more frequently than non-industry-funded research - a particular outcome,'' he says.

"Also, there's influence on the types of questions or the framing of the questions.''

And then, he says, there is the deeper, more insidious effect of industry funding on research.

Researchers are more likely to self-censor - or shape their research interests in line with industry - for fear of getting shut out of future funding rounds, Prof Heinemann says.

"If you're struggling to find research money, or you're early in your career, you can find the unspoken pressure and expectation for continued funding,'' he says.

And sometimes, researchers judged to be less-than-friendly to industry are shut out by their own colleagues.

"When a grant is being put together ... if [your colleagues] think that you would be damaging to their claim because the industry doesn't like you, they just won't invite you.''

All of that means that certain controversial topics - or subjects the industry does not want to explore - are ignored by researchers, he says.

The development of monocultures may be an example of that.

"Research money is overwhelmingly directed to technology for monoculture, rather than ... technology for agroecological farming.''

The contribution of dairy farming to climate change might be another, he says.

"I would say that it's under-researched - whether [industry's role in funding research] is the cause, I don't know. But it could definitely be part of it.''

In a statement, University of Otago deputy vice-chancellor for research Prof Richard Blaikie said "industry-funded research is robust and independent''.

"We are not concerned that industry provides a sizeable percentage of our funding.

"In fact, we welcome such funding ... because industry has a direct interest in the outcomes of independent research, and it is important that research institutions work closely with them to advance the full potential of the sector.

"We are not concerned that this interaction will interfere with the ability of our researchers to disseminate findings that might reflect negatively on industry or regulatory practice in any sector.

"We retain and protect our important responsibility to protect academic freedom, and the ability to act as a critic and conscience of society.''

Beef + Lamb New Zealand research manager Dr Geoff Ridley also rejects the notion that researchers are pressured by its funding for research.

"In our sector - I can't talk for all agricultural sectors - I don't have a strong feeling that [researchers are] concerned that they'll upset us.''

Still, he says, Beef and Lamb does make decisions about research funding based on "goalposts'' for what issues it would like to explore. And, he admits, the money it has earmarked for research is definitely scarce.

"There's a limited amount of money available - we're usually heavily over-subscribed,'' he says.

"There's just no way we would fund all the research that comes through to us.''

That means competition for funding allocation is fierce, and can end up being decided by researchers' reputation, or their past experience with funders.

But Dr Ridley says that does not mean they have closed minds about research.

"I think we are open to doing new things.''

The issue, he says, is money.

"It always comes back to how much money we have available.''

carla.green@odt.co.nz

* Not her real name.

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