Where the Money Comes From

After reading Linda’s excellent post yesterday I got to thinking about all of the discussions I have had over the years with people who didn’t know or understand where we (and by we, I mean my research group) got the money to do the work which we do.  Oh, they thought they knew, but they were usually way, way off.  So here I’m going to give you a terribly over-simplified version of the types of money that a professor can get to conduct the research that they want to conduct.  This rundown will be different from professor to professor and institution to institution of course, but the basics will be about the same. 

#1 An Endowment:  This is gold – the best thing there is in terms of funding.   An endowment is a large sum of money in an account which earns interest, and that interest can be used by the researcher in almost any way they want (as it relates to their research of course).  Few professors have endowments for their research (though quite a number have some percentage of their salary covered by an endowment).  As you might expect, endowments may yield anywhere from a few thousand to a few hundred thousand dollars depending on a number of factors.  My position does not currently have an endowment associated with it.

#2 Hard funding from the University (actually state or federal funding, but it feeds through the University system):   This type of funding is great.  It isn’t as flexible as an endowment, but it is still usually quite flexible (as long as the money is used for a project which the professor was hired to do —  an English professor couldn’t use hard funding to study how container growing affects daffodils).  The word “Hard” implies that the funding is available at a more or less constant level year after year, but recently it has been volatile.  If a University is suffering because of cutbacks, hard funding is in danger.   When I came to Minnesota I had quite a bit of hard funding – basically enough for a full time technician.  Now my hard funding covers a fraction of that.

#3 Gifts:  Gifts are one time presents of money.  Gifts are very flexible, and always greatly appreciated, but not recurring.  I have received gifts from various people and organizations ranging from a few hundred dollars up to $15,000 (sounds like a lot, but if you’re using it to pay a salary it doesn’t last long).

#4 Government Grant:  Government grants (I’m going to be liberal in my definition of Government grants – they can be anything from NSF and USDA grants to grants from cities or parks) are great, but they may only be used on research, teaching, or extension that the grant was given for.  This money may or may not be recurring over many years.  These grants can be prestigious and important (think NSF), but they’re also a tremendous amount of work and very competitive.  I have written and been on these grants and they are currently how I fund most of my research on things such as elm selection and preferred boulevard trees (my grants are from local and city entities rather than NSF or USDA, but the idea is the same).

 #5 Industry Grant:  An industry grant is similar to a Government Grant except that it is given by an industry group, such as the Minnesota Turf and Grounds Foundation, or by a particular company, such as Bayer.  Industry groups are a preferred source of income, but money from chemical companies, and other independent companies, does have a little bit of a stigma associated with it – it feels like you’re doing something to benefit one company instead of society as a whole.  Chemical company money is not sneered at, but often you do have to conduct research that may not be at the top of your priority list (though if a professor doesn’t care about the research at all then usually they won’t do it). If I can make ends meet in terms of paying my employees by treating some buckthorn with triclopyr, then yes, I will do it.  I have never taken a large sum from an independent firm, but I have certainly taken money and provided the research agreed upon.   I would go so far as to say that most professors in the agricultural sciences have.  For some it provides the bulk of their research dollars.

I’d like to conclude by saying that, in the case of dollars from chemical companies, I don’t personally know of any researcher who has purposefully falsified, failed to report, skewed, or selectively excluded data to make the chemical company happier with the results.  Doing so would ultimately just make that researcher (and the chemical company) look like an idiot.  I have personally given data to chemical companies which shows that their stuff doesn’t work that well – they don’t like it, but they appreciate it – marketing something that doesn’t work isn’t good for anyone.  I do know of a case where a researcher proposed a study to a large chemical company which would examine unseen dangers of a particular pesticide and was turned down – this was disappointing to me.  I think that many companies feel that they have a duty to seek out obvious dangers and that the government has a responsibility to fund research investigating unseen or unlikely dangers – but that’s just my own opinion.

Ignorance and the so-called “bogus” bee study

I’m angry.  Really, really angry.  And it’s all Kenny’s fault.

Kenny S., one of our long-time blog followers, alerted me to a blog posting dismissing a new study on colony collapse disorder (CCD). The post was devoid of any evidence of bogusness, other than a link to “great reporting” by New York Magazine. Aside from the general snarkiness of this article, we’re breathlessly informed that Fortune magazine (a hotbed of scientific inquiry) uncovered an unholy connection between the lead author (Dr. Bromenshenk) and Bayer.  That article recounts Dr. Bromenshenk’s sins, which include (1) accepting research money from Bayer, (2) not serving as an expert witness in a legal case against Bayer and (3) not studying every single possible cause of CCD.

Next I looked at the contested study, which is in an online journal.  Apparently none of the reporters/bloggers have bothered reading this, because they could easily discover the following:

1) there are 18 authors from many institutions, not just Dr. Bromenshenk and “Army scientists”;

2) the methodology was specific for protein analysis (not for pesticides nor any other nonliving factor);

3) funding was not provided by Bayer or any other corporation;

4) competing interests, such as Dr. Bromenshenk’s company, are openly acknowledged;

5) the article does not suggest anywhere that pesticides are blameless in CCD.

The body of the article is pretty technical and I’m not an entomologist. Still, this is in a peer-reviewed journal (albeit online rather than print).  You can see the review process and the list of academic reviewers if you were so inclined (as anyone who writes about science should be). Thus, qualified scientists (in addition to the 18 authors) find this to be a legitimate study.

Let’s look at Dr. Bromenshenk’s research history.  (For the record, I don’t know him and had never heard of him until yesterday.)  He’s published at least 26 scientific articles (in journals including Science) on various aspects of bee biology for the last 27 years.  To do these studies, he needs funding.  Guess what?  Universities don’t provide funding.  Magazines don’t provide funding.  Bloggers don’t provide funding.  Other than a handful of relevant government agencies (like NSF or USDA), most big grants come from corporations.  Like Bayer.

Now this is why I’m mad. There’s widespread perception among nonacademic types that corporate grant money “buys” results. That’s insulting. Most scientists do what they do because they love the thrill of discovery. There’s no thrill if you’ve rigged the results. Moreover, if you rig the results you’re going to be found out…eventually. A scientist with 27 years of credible, scientifically reviewed research is hardly a data rigger. And he’d have to convince 17 coauthors to go along with the scam.

Near the end of the Fortune article (and ignored by subsequent articles and blogging) was Dr. Bromenshenk’s efforts to get Bayer and the beekeepers to talk to each other. Though he was able to get Bayer to appoint a beekeeper advisory board (to assist with experimental design) in an effort to increase “trust and transparency” with the public, it hasn’t been terribly successful.

So here we have a man who’s devoted more than a quarter of a century to studying bees, who has published extensively in the peer-reviewed literature, who is trying to shed light on why bee colonies are dying, and who has tried to bring the pesticide industry and environmentalists to the same table.  You tell me why he’s being pilloried.