On Securing Support for Research: Should One Hit The Pause Button?

Those of us who conduct research in psychology, education, and related fields are dependent on external support to cover our expenses. For half a century, my colleagues and I at Harvard Project Zero have been fortunate to receive funding from various sources. In most cases, the funding process has been smooth and unproblematic; but in at least three cases, we have decided not to accept further funding.

Here I describe our overall history with fund raising; share three discombobulating experiences; and suggest some general guidelines.

First, the good news. From 1970-1980, almost all of our funding came from the federal government—The National Institutes of Health, The National Science Foundation, and a now defunct educational funder, The National Institute of Education. Then Ronald Reagan became president and made known his conviction that “social science is socialism.” Confronted with that dismissive attitude, we showed little hesitation in shifting our requests to large national foundations—The Rockefeller Foundation, the Ford Foundation, The MacArthur Foundation, Carnegie Corporation, and The Spencer Foundation (which focuses on educational research)—just to name a few. These foundations followed widely accepted peer review methods with respect to requests for funding; they did not attempt to micro-manage or redirect the research; and we never worried that any of the funding would be considered suspect. Whatever the value and attitudes of the original philanthropist (e.g. Henry Ford, John D. Rockefeller), the foundations by that time conduced business in a professional manner.

The bad news about funding from private foundations is that most program officers (the individual who control the purse strings) get bored with funding the same old institutions and causes—no matter how worthy. (And of course, we thought all of our causes were supremely worthy!) Accordingly, these philanthropoids (as the dispensers of funds are sometimes called) want to move on to support new and more exciting (and perhaps more needy) projects; it proved difficult to obtain continuation funding indefinitely.

Starting 25 years ago, we were saved by three factors:

1) Funding from a long-time anonymous funder, whose “cover” was eventually blown by The New York Times—the Atlantic Philanthropies, bankrolled completely by Charles Feeney. (Despite the fact that we received several million dollars from AP, none of us ever met Mr. Feeney.)

2) Smaller foundations, family foundations, and wealthy individuals. As these funders were less likely to follow standard peer review processes, a lot of this funding depended on good personal relations with the funders or with their designated program officers.

3) Our own honoraria and gifts that we were able to direct toward our research.

Also, somewhat to our surprise, and to our delight, we began once again to receive funding from some large national foundations. The previous project officers had resigned or retired and, in the absence of flawless institutional memory, our requests for funding were treated as “new” opportunities.

I am very pleased to say that, in my memory, no funder ever pressed us to come up with certain results, rather than others. Also, before accepting money from the anonymous foundation, we confirmed its trustworthiness with knowledgeable leaders at Harvard.

Yet, on three occasions alluded to above, we made the difficult decision not to receive any further funding from a source:

1) A funder insisted that we be prepared to travel long distances, without little or no prior warning. And these demands proved exhausting.

2) A funder was carrying out work of which we did not approve and yet wanted to have our imprimatur on that work.

3) A funder was convicted of a crime. In this case, I thought about this dilemma as I would with respect to a friend who was convicted of a crime. I might maintain a personal relationship, but I would not pretend that the crime has not happened. And so, while I personally retained a relationship with the funder, I let the funder know that under no circumstances would or could I accept any further funding. And this decision was accepted without protest.

I consider myself very fortunate not to have encountered more difficulties of this sort. At the same time, I have to add that at various times, I’ve made a decision not to pursue a funding opportunity; and I have advised colleagues and friends to refrain as well. It’s much easier not to become involved with a dubious source of funding than it is to establish ties that one subsequently has to break. The dubious source of funding can be from a corporation (e.g. a gun manufacturer, a cigarette company) whose products make me uncomfortable; or, for instance, from a source that has no apparent interest in the research per se but just wants to have a connection to the university.

In the current funding climate, where government funding is insufficient and the once dominant foundations are being dwarfed by individuals who are as wealthy or wealthier than Henry Ford or John D. Rockefeller, the temptations are great to ignore these warning signs and simply accept funds. This is especially so if one’s own salary or the salaries of close associates are at stake. That’s why I hope that more disinterested (neutral, objective) parties—for example, the government or foundations or individuals who are genuinely interested in the research but disinterested in the specific results—will re-emerge. And I hope that these entities will follow peer-review procedures in considering proposals and will give the researchers latitude in how they proceed. In return, the researchers must strive to carry out work of high quality; inform the sponsors of significant changes in procedures; and, of course, make the findings available promptly and publicly, while also crediting the sources for their support.

To phrase it in the spirit of this blog: Research is most likely to work well if all parties act in a professional manner.

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