Accusing opponents of being biased is a staple attack by all sides in many debates. As just one example, anti-vaccinationists have accused pro-vaccine doctors of profiting from vaccines, and vaccine proponents have struck back with similar claims. Implicit in these attacks is the idea that a funding source can unduly influence results–a claim most would find uncontroversial.
In the world of scientific ethics, though, it isn’t so much who funds research–it’s a given that someone, potentially with some agenda, is doing the funding–but rather whether or not the source of funding is made public in an open and honest manner.
That, I think, is the real message in Greenpeace‘s investigate research (yes, Greenpeace has an agenda, too, but it’s pretty clear what it is):
A Greenpeace investigation has identified a little-known, privately owned US oil company as the paymaster of global warming sceptics in the US and Europe.
The environmental campaign group accuses Kansas-based Koch Industries, which owns refineries and operates oil pipelines, of funding 35 conservative and libertarian groups, as well as more than 20 congressmen and senators. Between them, Greenpeace says, these groups and individuals have spread misinformation about climate science and led a sustained assault on climate scientists and green alternatives to fossil fuels.
Does this kind of relationship suggest problems with opponents of global climate change? Not necessarily, I think–if their arguments are valid and their research good, it doesn’t matter who funds them. Still, since I can’t easily replicate their research and thus have to take a great deal on trust, a failure to reveal the potential conflict of interest is concerning, I think, and suggests an equally potential for improper bias.