Higher EducationScience

Is it okay to dance with the devil for a good cause – like funding your graduate students?

Summer is conference time for scientists and I just got back from a fantastic one in Australia.  The Great Barrier Reef  science was quite fun and educational.  In between seminars as we are wont to do, we talked funding and how tight things are these days.  One’s chances of getting an NSF or NIH grant are seemingly declining with every grant cycle.  This has led professors, departments and universities to increasingly turn for funding to private organizations, corporations, and ‘non-traditional’ government agencies like the Department of Defense.  For example, our department is currently in discussions with the Templeton Foundation.  Templeton’s stated mission is, in part, to reconcile religion with science.  This not something NSF or NIH would ever ask you to sign up to do.

Templeton’s mission makes many scientists view them with suspicion.  Literally, as a fundamentalist Christian camel trying to stick its nose into the tent of objective science.  Furthermore, the negative attitudes extend towards any colleagues that would consort with or take Templeton monies.  The feeling is that when dancing with the devil (or in this case, God), one has to check skepticism at the door.  If Templeton is paying you, then you have to say good things about religion’s connection to science; whether or not you believe it to be true. Why are we then risking the wrath of respected colleagues by going forward?  Simple. For our graduate program.

Templeton will give you money.

With money, you can do research.

To do research, you need people.

“People” generally means graduate students to whom you pay a salary.

Recently SoD had an interesting thread on whether graduate programs should become more restrictive and admit only the number of students that could be adequately financially supported and who would have decent future job opportunities.  Or should we keep the doors as wide open as possible and let everyone in, with the clear understanding of caveat emptor? Our department is strongly committed to the former model.  Thus, the only way we can have more graduate students is to raise more money for their support.  And it ain’t gonna come from NSF!  So we talk to Templeton.  We have talked in the past to BP.  If the DoD were interested in us, we’d talk to them, too.

Of course, all the discussions would have academic freedom to publish any finding as a non-negotiable demand.  Nevertheless, I am sure many would still wonder if our science was not at least subconsciously altered to fit our paymaster’s agendas. I suppose each of us draws a line somewhere.  I would not take money to test cosmetic products on live animals.  But I will take Templeton money to fund my students, should I be fortunate enough to have it offered.  Even though I am agnostic and non-religious.  Even though I may be advancing their mission – a goal that I may not entirely believe in.  To me Templeton is not the devil.  They are people that I can both respect and disagree with.  With them, I will happily dance.

So the question is where would you draw your line?

If you are a grant-writing professor, would you ever refuse funding?  Academic freedom aside, are there simply any organizations you could never enter into a collaboration with?

If you are a grad student, would you be comfortable with funding your thesis research from a Templeton, an oil company, or a weapons manufacturer?  When would you choose to go into debt instead? 

Previous post

The Great Didactic: A.K.A. The Great Slog

Next post

The Great Didactic: All the young of both sexes should be sent to school

Peter Nonacs

Peter Nonacs

Professor of behavioral and evolutionary ecology at UCLA. I study the evolution of social behavior and cooperation, and anything that ants may do. And occasionally people, too.

No Comment

Leave a reply