Science and Engineering Ethics

, Volume 18, Issue 4, pp 699–717

Researcher Views About Funding Sources and Conflicts of Interest in Nanotechnology

Authors

    • Department of CommunicationCornell University
Article

DOI: 10.1007/s11948-011-9264-4

Cite this article as:
McComas, K.A. Sci Eng Ethics (2012) 18: 699. doi:10.1007/s11948-011-9264-4
  • 166 Views

Abstract

Dependence in nanotechnology on external funding and academic-industry relationships has led to questions concerning its influence on research directions, as well as the potential for conflicts of interest to arise and impact scientific integrity and public trust. This study uses a survey of 193 nanotechnology industry and academic researchers to explore whether they share similar concerns. Although these concerns are not unique to nanotechnology, its emerging nature and the prominence of industry funding lend credence to understanding its researchers’ views, as these researchers are shaping the norms and direction of the field. The results of the survey show general agreement that funding sources are influencing research directions in nanotechnology; many respondents saw this influence in their own work as well as other researchers’ work. Respondents also agreed that funding considerations were likely to influence whether researchers shared their results. Irrespective of their institutional affiliation or funding status, twice as many researchers as not considered financial conflicts of interest a cause for concern, and three times as many respondents as not disagreed financial conflicts of interest in nanotechnology were uncommon. Only a third was satisfied with the way that conflicts of interest are currently managed and believed current procedures would protect the integrity of nanotechnology research. The results also found differences in views depending on researchers’ institutional affiliation and funding status.

Keywords

Conflicts of interestUniversity-industry relationshipsFaculty surveysResearch support

Introduction

Recent data indicate that industry dollars fund approximately 67% of the research and development in the United States, with most of the research directed toward development activities rather than basic or applied work (National Science Board 2010). The prominence of industry funding underlies concerns about how funding arrangements can influence the questions researchers ask and the extent to which they share their results (Bekelman et al. 2003; Ziman 2002). Some have questioned whether motivations or pressures to develop specific products, processes, and devices has shifted research from more basic science to commercial domains (Caulfield 1998; Harman 1999), thus de-emphasizing or devaluing discovery-driven contributions. Others have questioned whether industry funding affects researchers in other ways, such as increasing their need to keep secret their results to have a commercial advantage over a competitor’s research or to reduce the possibility of others “free riding” on their expensive research (Wolfson 2003). Much of the discussion about the influence of funding sources has focused on university-industry collaborations (Schrag et al. 2003; Lipton et al. 2004; Blumenthal 1996; Blumenthal et al. 1986, 1996; Campbell and Slaughter 1999; Frankel 1996); however, questions have also arisen about the distorting influence of government support, particularly military funding (Wolfson 2003).

In addition to the influence on research directions, funding arrangements have also led to concerns over real or potential conflicts of interest that could arise when researchers face competing allegiances in their work (Blumenthal et al. 1986; Weil 2003; Wolfson 2003). Among possible consequences of conflicts of interest is harm to research participants, scientific integrity, and public trust should these conflicts be mismanaged (Czarkowski 2006; Cohen 2001; Boyd and Bero 2000; Fallowfield et al. 1997; DeAngelis 2000). Conflicts of interest are generally understood to occur when an individual or entity has a stake in a decision and also the means to influence it. Although conflicts can arise due to personal, professional, financial, and intellectual interests (International Committee of Medical Journal Editors 1993; Bird and Spier 2005), perhaps the most visible arise from the financial stakes that researchers may have in their results. Having a financial stake in the outcome of one’s research is not necessarily unethical; however, ethical implications arise when researchers are expected to act objectively yet feel compelled to act in favor of their interests, such as by casting their results in a more favorable light than the data may warrant (McNutt 1999; Davis 2001; Cohen 2001).

Corresponding to these concerns is an increased interest in and attention to the proper management of conflicts of interest. The peer-review process is among the more time-honored, though, arguably, not flawless (Alpert 2007; Davidoff 1998; Farthing 2006) methods for managing the more obvious conflicts of interest in science, ensuring, among other things, that researchers do not review their own articles or grant proposals submitted for funding. Beyond a robust peer-review process, efforts to manage conflicts of interests in science have focused on increased disclosure of financial conflicts of interest in publications (Ancker and Flanagin 2007). Although research suggests that disclosure may not neutralize bias (Lesser et al. 2007; Levine et al. 2003; Cech and Leonard 2001), and disclosure policies may be applied unevenly (Krimsky and Rothenberg 2001), disclosure, at least in theory, should enable attentive reviewers and readers to weigh potential bias when evaluating the research.

Funding arrangements have led to other scenarios, however, where the management of conflicts of interest is murkier. For example, how acceptable is it for researchers to exaggerate (i.e., hype) the significance of their research to attract additional funding for their work? To delay publication pending the approval of a project’s sponsor? To withhold negative results that could potentially harm the sponsor’s reputation (Romig et al. 2007)? In cases where the ethical course of action may be less clear, the researcher’s own “ethical barometer,” informed by the salient research norms or institutional culture, may offer more immediate guidance about the appropriate course of action than any explicit, external code of conduct or policy.

What are these norms of conduct? A recent effort to conduct a systematic review of studies examining investigators’ views about funding sources in academic and clinical research found general concern about the influence of funding on the choice of research topics, conduct of researchers, and publication practices (Glaser and Bero 2005). In addition, academic researchers with industry funding tended to be less critical of academic-industry relationships and believed that disclosure of financial interest was adequate to neutralize bias. Given the argument that the influence of conflicts of interest might occur at an unconscious level (Dana and Loewenstein 2003; Silverman et al. 2010), yet most researchers believed themselves in much greater control, the authors questioned whether this trust might be misplaced.

To date, much of the survey work examining researchers’ views has focused on the biomedical and life sciences, prompting questions about whether researchers outside of these areas share similar opinions (Glaser and Bero 2005). The present study extends this work to nanoscale science and engineering, often simply referred to as nanotechnology. Nanotechnology is concerned with the understanding and control of materials at the nanoscale, meaning between 0 and 100 nm wide (National Nanotechnology Initiative 2010). A common point of reference is that a human hair is approximately 60,000–80,000 nm wide. Materials at the nanoscale behave differently and can have unique properties from those at larger scales, thus enabling new applications in areas ranging from medicine to energy to the environment. Because of their durability, lightness, and strength, nanoparticles have been used in consumer products as diverse as tennis rackets and baseball bats, to sunscreen, food, clothing, eyeglasses, and electronic devices, with hundreds more applications anticipated (National Nanotechnology Initiative 2010).

The National Nanotechnology Initiative (2010) estimates that large corporations support approximately half of the research and development in nanotechnology, with the other half supported by small businesses, investors, and government. Academic-industry collaborations are viewed as a means of moving the technology from the labs to the marketplace. Given the prominence of industry funding and academic-industry collaborations, the relevance of funding concerns is clear (Weil 2003; Wolfson 2003). In addition to influencing research directions, one could imagine that the type of funding support could lead to real or potential conflicts of interest among nanotechnology researchers, as it has in other fields. Conflicts of interest may arise, for example, around the desire to commercialize a product or to downplay the potential risks associated with its manufacture, use, or eventual disposal. Given the buildup or hype surrounding nanotechnology’s potentially “revolutionary” nature, others have questioned whether research on the potential risks has kept up pace with research on applications (Center for Responsible Nanotechnology 2008). Although no high profile controversy surrounding conflicts of interest in nanotechnology has appeared to date, hard-learned lessons from other fields suggest that possible consequences of ill-managed conflicts of interest range from the false aggrandizement of certain lines of research and an accompanying misdirection of research funds (Romig et al. 2007), to the unidentified or underappreciated risks to public health and safety, to the concomitant delay in regulatory response (Wilson 2006). Ultimately, should lessons from other fields apply to nanotechnology, unfettered conflicts of interest could damage the real or perceived integrity and trustworthiness of researchers and public support for their work (Friedman 2002; DeAngelis 2000).

Because efforts to manage conflicts of interest in nanotechnology may be aided by understanding the views of its researchers, this study surveyed the opinions of academic and industry-based nanotechnology scientists and engineers about funding sources and conflicts of interest in nanotechnology. Because research has shown that scientists and engineers often have different views depending on their funding source, this study also sought to compare the views of industry respondents, academic respondents with industry funding, and academic respondents without industry funding. The research questions guiding the inquiry were: (1) To what extent do nanotechnology researchers believe that funding sources influence not only the nature and direction of nanotechnology research but also its design, conduct, and dissemination? (2) To what extent do they perceive any cause for concern about financial conflicts of interest in nanotechnology research? (3) Do significant differences in these perceptions exist among industry respondents, academics with industry funding, and academics without industry funding?

Methods

Data were collected via a web survey in November and December 2009 implemented by Cornell University’s Survey Research Institute. The entire survey included 65 items using Likert-type strongly agree/strongly disagree scales, simple yes/no responses, and some open-ended items, asking questions similar to those asked in previous research (e.g., Blumenthal et al. 1986; Glaser and Bero 2005).

The sample was randomly selected from a list of scientists and engineers who used one or more of the 14 labs associated with the National Nanotechnology Infrastructure Network (NNIN) between 2006 and 2009. Funded by the National Science Foundation, the NNIN provides qualified users from academia, industry, and government open, paid access to facilities to conduct nanotechnology research. Since its inception in 2004, over 7,800 scientists and engineers have used its facilities (NNIN 2010). This study sampled academic and industry users; graduate students were excluded to focus on researchers at a later career stage.

Invitation e-mails with a link to the survey were sent out to potential respondents on November 2, followed by up to three reminder e-mails to non-respondents. Data collection ended on December 7. The survey took respondents an average of 9 min to complete. In total, 240 people responded to the survey out of a possible 662 with valid email addresses yielding a response rate of 36%. Among respondents, 78% (n = 155) answered that they currently worked for a university or college. A further 19% (n = 38) worked for industry. The remaining either worked for government (n = 1), an independent research organization (n = 4), or unspecified other (n = 2), or did not answer the question (n = 40). These cases were removed from further analysis to allow for a specific comparison between self-identified academic and industry respondents. In terms of how these respondents reflect the larger NNIN user base, 2008 data on network usage shows that out of approximately 5,100 users, 80% were affiliated with universities or colleges and 18% were affiliated with small or large companies (NNIN 2010).

Of the respondents included in the analysis (n = 193), 85% were male, and about 50% had been awarded their highest degree since 1996. For 82%, this degree was a PhD. The most common field of this degree was physics, followed by electrical engineering, chemistry, chemical engineering, materials science, and mechanical engineering. Other less common, though present, fields were civil and environmental engineering, nuclear engineering, geological sciences, biomedical engineering, and food sciences.

Results

Perceived Influence of Funding Sources

The first research question sought to examine the extent to which researchers believe that funding sources influence the nature and direction of nanotechnology research, as well as its dissemination. Regarding the relevance of this issue to respondents, the results show that, 95% of the academic respondents said that they relied on external funds to support their research. At the time of the survey, 62 were currently receiving only government funds whereas 70 were receiving both industry and government funds. Five were currently receiving only industry funds. Based on these data, respondents were divided into different groups for comparison: industry respondents (n = 38), academics with industry and government funding (n = 70),1 academics with only government funding (n = 62), and academics without current funding (n = 23). Figure 1 shows the group comparisons used in the analysis.
https://static-content.springer.com/image/art%3A10.1007%2Fs11948-011-9264-4/MediaObjects/11948_2011_9264_Fig1_HTML.gif
Fig. 1

Breakdown of comparisons for analysis

Offering further context about the relevance of this topic to respondents, Table 1 provides an overview of respondents’ commercial productivity and interactions about conflicts of interest in research. A comparison between academics and industry respondents shows that industry respondents were more likely to consider some of their research the property of a funding source, hold equity in a company based on their research, and have conducted research resulting in trade secrets. There was no significant difference between industry respondents and academics regarding the likelihood of holding patents in nanotechnology. Academics with funding were, however, more likely to hold patents than those without funding, as were academics with industry and government funding compared to those with only government funding. Academics with industry and government funding were also more likely than those with only government funding to consider some of their research the property of their funding source.
Table 1

Commercial productivity of respondents (% “Yes”)

 

Industry (n = 38) vs. academic (n = 155)

Academic without funding (n = 23) vs. academic with funding (n = 132)

Academic with government funding (n = 62) vs. academic with industry and government funding (n = 70)

Some of my research is the property of my funding source and cannot be published without its consenta,b

68% vs. 27%

27% vs. 27%

16% vs. 37%

I own equity in a company whose products or services are based on my researcha

53% vs. 18%

5% vs. 21%

21% vs. 20%

My research has resulted in trade secrets, or information that must be kept secret to protect the commercial valuea

84% vs. 24%

27% vs. 23%

19% vs. 26%

I hold one or more patents in the area of NSE (nanoscale science or engineering)b,c

50% vs. 52%

23% vs. 57%

48% vs. 64%

I have received advice about how to manage conflicts of interest in my researcha,b

40% vs. 73%

59% vs. 76%

65% vs. 86%

I have spoken with colleagues about how to manage conflicts of interest in researchc

58% vs. 72%

50% vs. 86%

73% vs. 79%

aFisher’s exact test (1-sided) shows differences between industry and academic respondents are significant at p < .001

bFisher’s exact test (1-sided) shows differences between academics with government funding and academics with industry and government funding are significant at p < .05

cFisher’s exact test (1-sided) shows differences between academics without funding and academics with funding are significant at p < .01

The results also show that, compared to industry respondents, academics were significantly more likely to say that they had received advice about how to manage conflicts of interest in their research. The same was true for academics with industry and government funding compared to those with only government funding. Academics with funding were also more likely than those without funding to have spoken to colleagues about how to manage conflicts of interest in research.

When asked directly about the perceived influence of funding, 69% of respondents agreed that funding sources influence the research being conducted in nanotechnology. Almost half (47%) agreed that funding considerations have shifted the emphasis of research from basic to applied. Similarly, 53% agreed that commercial applications have influenced what they choose to research. Even so, only 34% agreed that the commercial potential of nanotechnology has distorted the research agenda. Less than half (46%) indicated they were worried about the influence of funding sources on their own research, and fewer still (37%) were worried about its influence on others’ research. As one respondent wrote, “Yes, there has been a swing to more applied research lately, but this is not much more than the usual pendulum swing in scientific emphasis.” Or, as another researcher commented, “It is worth remembering that the art of Venice would not be there without the Medici family. We really need to build these partnerships and realize that the wall between ‘basic’ and ‘applied’ is artificial.”

In terms of the influence of funding on the dissemination of their results, 44% of the respondents believed that funding sources affected how widely they shared the results of their research. In comparison, 62% believed that funding influenced how widely other researchers shared their results. Overall, 70% agreed that financial interests might influence researchers to keep secret the results of their work. One researcher explained, “If you spend your own money to support a research project, you will want to own it instead of leaking the information to your competitors. So it is perfectly OK to let industrial sponsors to keep their own results.”

Conflicts of Interest and Nanotechnology

The second research question asked whether researchers perceived that financial conflicts of interest were a cause for concern. Overall, only 19% agreed that financial conflicts of interest in nanotechnology were not a cause for concern, whereas 44% disagreed. Further, only 11% agreed that such conflicts were uncommon, whereas 38% disagreed. Other notable findings included that only 33% indicated that they were satisfied with the way that conflicts of interest were managed. Similarly, only 35% believed that existing procedures would ensure that financial conflicts of interest would not affect the integrity of nanotechnology research.

In terms of managing conflicts of interest, just over half (55%) agreed that researchers would behave “ethically and manage them appropriately” if faced with a financial conflict of interest, whereas 62% agreed that researchers would ensure that their work was as objective as possible, “even if their results conflict with their financial interests.” Even so, 38% agreed that researchers might act in favor of their financial interest. Most respondents agreed that full disclosure of financial interests in resulting publications would “ensure the public’s trust” in nanotechnology research and “ensure that scientific integrity remains intact” (80% and 72%, respectively). Opinions about whether full disclosure neutralizes bias were more divided, however, with 37% agreeing and 31% disagreeing. Perhaps related, only about a third (32%) indicated that they pay attention to who sponsored a particular research project when evaluating the quality of that work, whereas 40% indicated that they did not. Even so, 50% of respondents agreed that knowing who sponsored their work might influence how other researchers would evaluate the quality of their research.

Between Group Comparisons

To answer the third research question, which asked about differences between respondents depending on institutional affiliation and funding status, it made sense to reduce the number of items and examine the underlying structure and relationships among people’s responses. A principal components analysis using varimax rotation was conducted on the questionnaire items measuring respondents’ views. Seven factors emerged, accounting for 63% of the variance in responses. The items comprising the factors were examined to determine whether they made theoretical and logical sense as a coherent construct (DeVellis 2003). One factor containing two items and explaining only 5% of the variance did not satisfy this criterion and was dropped. Each factor’s items were checked for internal consistency using Cronbach’s alpha, which resulted in some additional items being removed to increase the reliabilities. The remaining items were added together for each factor, creating six composite variables for analysis. Table 2 lists the six variables and the items comprising them. These variables were interpreted as corresponding to respondents’ beliefs that: (1) financial conflict of interest (FCOI) procedures are satisfactory; (2) funding influences research directions; (3) funding influences information sharing; (4) funding influences perceptions of research; (5) full disclosure of FCOI ensures trust; and (6) FCOI are a cause for concern. The alpha’s ranged from a respectable .77 for “FCOI procedures are satisfactory” to a minimally acceptable .65 for “funding influences research directions” (DeVellis 2003).
Table 2

Questionnaire items, means, standard deviations, and reliabilities

Satisfied with FCOI procedures (α = .77)

Most researchers try hard to ensure that their work is as objective as possible, even if their results conflict with their financial interests

3.65 (.87)

Should financial conflicts of interest arise in NSE, I trust the researchers to behave ethically and manage them appropriately

3.47 (.87)

Procedures exist to ensure that financial conflicts of interest do not affect the integrity of NSE researcha,b

3.27 (.83)

I am satisfied that real or potential conflicts of interest are being managed appropriately by NSE researchersc

3.24 (.81)

Funding influences research directions (α = .73)

I worry about how the sources of my funding might influence the research I pursue in NSE

3.20 (1.15)

I worry about how the sources of other researchers’ funding might influence the research they pursue in NSEd

3.16 (.95)

Scientific research agendas have been distorted due to the commercial potential of NSEe

2.96 (1.14)

The possibility of commercial applications has shifted the emphasis of NSE research from basic to appliedf

3.36 (.88)

The choice of what I research in NSE has, at times, been influenced by the possible commercial applications of my results

3.30 (1.17)

Funding influences information sharing (α = .65)

The source of my funding has, at times, influenced how widely I share the results of my NSE researchg

3.12 (1.15)

The source of other researchers’ funding influences how widely they share the results of their NSE research

3.62 (.81)

Financial interests may influence researchers to keep secret the results of their NSE researchh,i

3.71 (.80)

Funding influences perceptions of research (α = .73)

I pay attention to who sponsored the research when I evaluate other researchers’ NSE work

2.83 (1.12)

Knowing who sponsored my work might influence how other researchers evaluate the quality of my NSE researchj

3.26 (1.01)

In am concerned about how the sources of funding might influence public support for NSEk

3.17 (.97)

Full disclosure of FCOI ensures trust (α = .71)

Full disclosure of financial conflicts of interest will ensure that scientific integrity remains intact

3.85 (.87)

Full disclosure of financial conflicts of interest helps to ensure the public’s trust in NSE research

3.91 (.77)

FCOI are a cause for concern (α = .67)

Financial conflicts of interest are uncommon in NSE (reverse coded)

3.31 (.76)

Financial conflicts of interest are not a cause for concern in NSE (reverse coded)

3.30 (.92)

Values range from 1 = strongly disagree, 2 = disagree, 3 = feel neutral, 4 = agree, 5 = strongly agree

aMean differences are significant (p < .05) between academic (M = 3.33, SD = .80) and industry (M = 3.03, SD = .93) respondents

bMean differences are significant (p < .001) between academics with funding (M = 3.43, SD = .78) and academics without funding (M = 2.71, SD = .64)

cMean differences are significant (p < .001) between academics with funding (M = 3.31, SD = .85) and academics without funding (M = 3.00, SD = .55)

dMean differences are significant (p < .05) between academics with funding (M = 3.03, SD = .96) and academics without funding (M = 3.55, SD = .67)

eMean differences are significant (p < .05) between academics with funding (M = 2.89, SD = 1.01) and academics without funding (M = 3.50, SD = 1.14)

fMean differences are significant (p < .05) between academic (M = 3.21, SD = 1.13) and industry (M = 3.66, SD = 1.03) respondents

gMean differences are significant (p < .01) between academic (M = 3.00, SD = 1.18) and industry (M = 3.61, SD = .87) respondents

hMean differences are significant (p < .05) between academic (M = 3.64, SD = .82) and industry (M = 3.97, SD = .65) respondents

iMean differences are significant (p < .05) between academics with funding (M = 3.60, SD = .84) and academics without funding (M = 3.95, SD = .59)

jMean differences are significant (p < .05) between academics with industry and government funding (M = 3.04, SD = 1.04) and academics with only government funding (M = 3.44, SD = .92)

kMean differences are significant (p < .05) between academics with industry and government funding (M = 2.90, SD = 1.00) and academics with only government funding (M = 3.28, SD = 1.00)

Table 2 also provides the means and standard deviations for the individual items comprising each variable, including differences between groups. Related to respondents’ satisfaction with current financial conflict of interest procedures, the results show that academics were more likely than industry respondents to agree that existing procedures will ensure that financial conflicts of interest do not affect the integrity of nanotechnology research. A breakdown of academics reveals, however, that academics with funding were more likely than those without funding to agree with this statement. Academics with funding were also more likely than those without funding to be satisfied with current management of conflicts of interest by nanotechnology researchers.

Regarding the influence of funding on research directions and information sharing, industry respondents were more likely than academics to agree that the possibility of commercial applications has shifted nanotechnology research from basic to applied. They were also more likely than academics to agree that funding sources have influenced how widely they share the results of their research and that financial interests may influence researchers to keep secret the results of their work. Academics without funding were more likely than those with funding to agree that scientific research agendas have been distorted due to the commercial potential of nanotechnology. They were also more likely than those with funding to agree that financial interests may influence researchers to keep secret the results of their research.

Finally, in terms of the influence of funding on perceptions of research, academics with only government funding were more likely than those with both industry and government funding to believe that knowledge of a sponsor might influence how other researchers evaluate their work. They were also more likely to express concern that funding sources might influence public support for nanotechnology research.

Table 3 provides a breakdown of these relationships by group and therefore offers an overall summary of group differences; it also shows the correlations among the composite variables. Among several significant relationships among the variables themselves, respondents who were satisfied with FCOI procedures were also less likely to believe that funding influences research directions, information sharing, and perceptions of research and more likely to believe that full disclosure of FCOI ensures trust. Those who were satisfied with FCOI procedures were also less likely to believe that FCOI were a cause for concern in nanotechnology.
Table 3

Correlations among beliefs

 

Academic (1) or industry (2)

Academic without funding (1) or academic with funding (2)

Academic with government funding (1) or academic with industry and government funding (2)

Funding influences research directions

Funding influences perceptions of research

Full disclosure of FCOI ensures trust

Funding influences information sharing

FCOI are a cause for concern

Satisfied with FCOI procedures

−.15*

.17*

.03

−.35**

−.32**

−.33**

.35**

−.38**

Funding influences research directions

.07

−.17*

.00

.40**

.30**

−.08

.38**

Funding influences perceptions of research

.12

−.07

−.20*

 

.23**

−.29**

.13

Full disclosure of FCOI ensures trust

.05

.00

−.04

  

−.07

.21**

Funding influences information sharing

.17*

−.02

.07

   

.04

FCOI are a cause for concern

.04

−.01

−.09

    

p < .05; ** p < .001

Between groups, the results show no significant difference in believing FCOI are a cause for concern by group. That is, industry respondents and academic respondents, with or without funding, tended to have similar views regarding whether FCOI were a cause for concern. There is also no difference in believing full disclosure of FCOI ensures trust by group. In comparison, industry respondents were less likely than academics to consider FCOI procedures satisfactory. Industry respondents were also more likely than academics to believe that funding influences information sharing. Academic respondents without funding were also less satisfied with FCOI procedures than academics with funding; they were also more likely to believe that funding influences research directions. Finally, academics with government funding were more likely than those with both industry and government funding to believe that funding influences perceptions of research.

Acceptability of Scenarios

As further evidence regarding current norms of conduct, Fig. 2 examines respondents’ views about the perceived acceptability of several scenarios that could arise from funding arrangements. Among the scenarios rated least acceptable was downplaying risks to avoid public outcry or a reduction in funding; however, one respondent offered this qualifier: “Downplaying the risks of research to prevent a public outcry is fine if there’s nothing to be worried about, but is unacceptable if you’re, for example, knowingly contaminating the ground water!” Almost as unacceptable to respondents was exaggerating the significance of research to attract external funds or to excite people. One respondent included publications on this list, noting: “The publication of poorly reproducible results with limited accountability for overhyping is a problem—especially as methods become more complex and interdisciplinary approaches increase the complexity of procedures. Challenges to published papers should be more frequent and should receive higher visibility.” Slightly more acceptable were delaying publication at the request of a funding source and disclosing the funding source. Scenarios that respondents deemed most acceptable were accepting funds from industry and government and partnering with industry and government.
https://static-content.springer.com/image/art%3A10.1007%2Fs11948-011-9264-4/MediaObjects/11948_2011_9264_Fig2_HTML.gif
Fig. 2

Acceptability of specific scenarios. Values range from 1 = not at all acceptable, 2 = not very acceptable, 3 = somewhat acceptable, 4 = completely acceptable. a Mean differences are significant (p < .05) between academic (M = 1.95, SD = .88) and industry (M = 2.29, SD = 1.04) respondents. b Mean differences are significant (p < .01) between academics with industry and government funding (M = 2.69, SD = .81) and academics with only government funding (M = 2.30, SD = .88). c Mean differences are significant (p < .05) between academics with funding (M = 2.78, SD = .95) and academics without funding (M = 2.32, SD = 1.13). d Mean differences are significant (p < .001) between academics with industry and government funding (M = 3.09, SD = .85) and academics with only government funding (M = 2.42, SD = .94). e Mean differences are significant (p < .001) between academics with funding (M = 3.85, SD = .40) and academics without funding (M = 4.00, SD = .00) (equal variances not assumed)

A comparison between groups shows that industry respondents were more likely than academics to consider it acceptable to withhold results at the request of a funding source. Academics with funding were more likely than academics without funding to consider it acceptable for funding sources to review publications prior to submission, as were academics with funding from both industry and government compared to academics with only government funding. Academics without funding also considered it more acceptable to disclose funding sources when publishing than academics with funding.

Discussion

Given the emerging nature of nanotechnology and the prominence of industry funding and academic-industry collaborations, this study offers some foundational data on how nanotechnology researchers perceive the influence of funding sources on research directions and sharing of results. It also offers evidence on current norms of acceptable conduct in the field. The results showed that respondents generally agreed that funding sources have influenced the direction of nanotechnology research, with about half agreeing that it has shifted from more basic to more applied. On the other hand, when compared to previous research (Priest and Gillespie 2000; Harman 1999), it appears that fewer nanotechnology researchers believed commercial considerations had distorted scientific agendas. Furthermore, many agreed that funding considerations were likely to diminish the sharing of results. These findings support earlier research (Blumenthal et al. 1986), as well as concerns voiced about nanotechnology (Wolfson 2003), and could reflect emergent or perhaps extant norms in the field.

This study also found that respondents did not consider financial conflicts of interest uncommon, and many considered them a cause for concern. Many respondents also preferred to give a “feel neutral” response when asked how other researchers would behave ethically in the face of financial conflicts of interest. This finding may relate to a general feeling of uncertainty about the extent to which researchers understand scenarios that could give rise to real or potential conflicts of interest. While some respondents noted that they had received information on managing conflicts of interest or talked to colleagues about this topic, others noted that there was little discussion; this was particularly true among industry respondents. Another possibility is that this finding reveals an underlying unease or lack of confidence that other, unknown nanotechnology researchers share the same “ethical barometer” as the respondent. One possible course of action is to encourage greater openness and discussion surrounding the potential scenarios that could give rise to real or potential conflicts of interest. Arguably, this is easier done with graduate students, who may experience such discussions as part of their education and training. Respondents in this study included academics and industry researchers, who may have less time and inclination to engage in such discussions. For this group, editorials and articles in nanotechnology journals, similar to what has appeared in biomedical journals, may offer a better avenue for promoting awareness and discussion. Along these lines, results such as those presented in this study could help start a discussion about perceived institutional culture or accepted norms of behavior. Knowing, for example, that more than two times as many nanotechnology researchers agreed than disagreed that financial conflicts of interest are a cause for concern, or that more than three times as many disagreed than agreed that such conflicts of interest were uncommon—irrespective of their institutional affiliation or funding status—might be opportune places to start a discussion about institutional culture or policies.

Some have questioned whether nanotechnology researchers, as any researchers, may be able to police themselves (Wolfson 2003). When rating the acceptability of various scenarios representing norms of conduct, the results found low tolerance for downplaying risks and exaggerating one’s research but a much higher tolerance for accepting external funding from industry and government. One question is whether some of the scenarios that are considered more acceptable, such as partnering with industry or allowing sponsors to review publications prior to submission, could lead to arrangements that researchers would find less acceptable, such as withholding results. Again, greater discussion about the possible scenarios researchers might encounter could make explicit some of the more obscure influences on researchers’ behaviors (Schrag et al. 2003).

Finally, the results revealed more similarities than differences between groups regarding their views on the influences of funding and conflicts of interest in nanotechnology. Even so, there were some differences worth mentioning. Perhaps the most consistent if not surprising differences between academic and industry respondents related to their commercial productivity, with industry respondents much more likely than academics to have produced research that belongs to their funding source, hold equity in a company based on their research, and have research that has resulted in trade secrets. It was also interesting that industry respondents were more than twice as likely as academics to say that they had not received any advice about managing conflicts of interest in their research. This finding may suggest the need to fill a gap, such as with additional discussion about existing procedures or the development of improved guidelines outlining expectations. For academics, it may be more common to encounter information on conflicts of interest through annual conflict of interest disclosure statements or their office of sponsored research. For industry researchers, it is less clear where they may encounter this information. What might the implications of this finding be for academic-industry collaborations? Currently, the NNIN, from which the sample of respondents was obtained, requires all new users of its laboratory facilities to participate in some type of ethics orientation, but the content of these orientations is not uniform across the 14 sites and does not necessarily discuss conflicts of interest in research. Not all respondents may have participated in an orientation either, as the requirement was only recently adopted. Future research might examine sources of information about conflicts of interest among researchers.

Another interesting finding related to satisfaction with conflict of interest procedures. The results showed that industry respondents were less satisfied than academics that financial conflict of interest procedures were protecting the integrity of nanotechnology researchers. Some possible explanations suggested by the data are that industry respondents were less aware of conflict of interest procedures, considered them ineffective, or were more skeptical about the behavior of other researchers. On the other hand, comparing academics with funding and academics without funding, the results showed that academics without funding were less satisfied with conflict of interest procedures and more likely to believe that funding influences research directions. Such findings are similar to those from previous research suggesting that academics with funding tend to be less critical of funding influences (Glaser and Bero 2005; Lipton et al. 2004). One possible explanation is that academics without funding had little first-hand experience with funding arrangements and thus were more skeptical about the potentially biasing influence; however, the survey data also show that 18 out of the 23 academics without current funding had, in fact, received government or industry dollars in the past. This previous experience makes differences between these groups perhaps more intriguing and may suggest that the views of academics without funding arose from personal encounters with these issues. It is interesting, however, that academics with funding were significantly more satisfied than industry respondents with the conflict of interest procedures (M = 3.42, SD = .78 vs. M = 3.03, SD = .93, p < .05). Future research could examine this group more specifically to determine the origins of these views.

Another finding that merits attention was that academics with government funding were more concerned than academics with industry and government funding about the possible influence of funding on perceptions of nanotechnology research. That is, they were more likely to believe that others would factor in who sponsored their work when evaluating their research and that knowledge of funding sources might influence public support for nanotechnology. From the data, it remains unclear the reasons behind this heightened sensitivity to issues of funding and perceptions of research credibility or quality. Neither group was more likely than the other, for instance, to agree that industry funding gives rise to more financial conflicts of interest or that government or industry funding increase the likelihood of producing commercially useful results, which might have offered some rationale. Future research could seek to understand the origins of this finding.

In addition to questions for future research, when considering the results, it is important to note that the data are subject to some limitations. First, despite being randomly drawn from the larger pool of NNIN users, respondents are not intended to represent all NNIN users nor all scientists and engineers that conduct research in nanotechnology. There may also be differences in beliefs depending on the type of nanotechnology research that respondents conduct, which the current data are unable to uncover. Even so, the sample consists of an important group of scientists and engineers that presumably has insight relevant to the research questions. Second, although the response rate falls within the range commonly achieved in web surveys (Porter and Whitcomb 2003) and exceeds the response rates of other web surveys with scientists (The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press 2009), the number of non-respondents could still enter bias into the results. It may be that people who responded to this survey were more concerned about these issues, which could have inflated the responses. Third, respondents may have underreported certain activities or opinions that they perceived as undesirable or unethical, such as downplaying risks to avoid public outcry, or overreported others, such as discussions about conflicts of interest among colleagues. Although responses were confidential, there is no way to ascertain the possible presence of this bias. It is also important to note that researchers may underestimate the influence of conflicts of interest on their own behavior (Glaser and Bero 2005); thus, the results may underreport the possible impacts on the field.

In addition, future research could seek to refine the composite variables measuring beliefs about funding influences and conflicts of interest. These variables represent an initial effort to develop scales that can tap into similar belief structures among respondents. Whether these variables can be replicated and prove useful with different samples in different contexts and with other theoretical constructs or frameworks remain undetermined. In particular, examining whether these beliefs correlate with social norms, self-efficacy, and behavioral intentions, e.g., a reasoned action approach (Fishbein 2007), could prove useful for designing interventions to manage real or potential conflicts of interest.

In sum, this study contributes to the extant literature on researcher views about the influence of funding sources and conflicts of interest in science and engineering, suggesting that many of the concerns that arose in previous studies are shared by nanotechnology researchers. In addition, this research adds to the ongoing discussion about societal and ethical implications of nanotechnology by offering additional data regarding the possible challenges facing the field (Weil 2003; Wolfson 2003), which include issues related to intellectual freedom, information exchange, procedural fairness, and entrepreneurship. From a practical sense, these results could be used to raise awareness and stimulate discussion on the important yet often sensitive issues related to financial arrangements and conflicts of interest. In turn, more willingness to address these issues proactively and openly may help nanotechnology avoid some of the controversies and resulting backlash that have plagued other fields.

Footnotes
1

Government grants were included because, as noted above, only five academics were currently only industry funded.

 

Acknowledgments

This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. ECS-0335765. Any opinions, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

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© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2011