Academic journal article Journal of Higher Education

The Politics of Research Misconduct: Congressional Oversight, Universities, and Science

Academic journal article Journal of Higher Education

The Politics of Research Misconduct: Congressional Oversight, Universities, and Science

Article excerpt

At the base of our investment in research lies the trust of the American people and the integrity of the scientific enterprise. -- Albert Gore, Jr. (1981) [41].

The foundation of public support for science ... is trust ... that scientists and research institutions are engaged in the dispassionate search for truth. -- John Dingell (1993) [12].

The operational model for the manner in which scientific research is federally funded and managed in the United States and for the relationship of government to the nation's research universities emerged from debate that began during the Second World War. Although the resulting arrangement has worked well for science and for American higher education, it rested on a number of critical but untested assumptions, which fifty years later are undergoing new scrutiny and reassessment [7, 46]. Vannevar Bush's Science -- The Endless Frontier [8, 43], which set forth the initial terms of the political bargain, argued that "publicly and privately supported colleges and universities and ... endowed research institutes" would offer the best home for basic research in medicine, science, and engineering [8, pp. 5, 19]. In addition to "increas[ing] ... scientific capital" by training future researchers, academic institutions would "provide the environment ... most conducive to the creation of new scientific knowledge and least under pressure for immediate, tangible results" [8, p. 6]. Locating basic research in the ivory tower rather than in the commercial sector was intended to provide indirect support to higher education and to insulate science from the negative values associated with business. American industry would be encouraged to take the knowledge produced (and, by implication, freely shared(1)) by academic scientists, spin the knowledge into marketable products, and thereby put demobilized soldiers back to work and stimulate the postwar economy. In return for considerable autonomy in managing the research process, scientists and the universities promised reliability, productivity, and political accountability.

Not everyone enthusiastically endorsed the Bush report's plan. Disagreements centered not, however, on whether there should be government funding of research but on the extent to which political control should be exerted on the topics and processes of that research [31, pp. 48--64]. Scientists who had enjoyed relatively unfettered freedom of inquiry before World War II and had endured national security restrictions and censorship during the war were understandably uneasy about the strings likely to accompany peacetime government funding. Frank Jewett, president of the National Academy of Sciences (and a former president of Bell Laboratories), warned that the proposed arrangement contained a number of hidden dangers, not the least of which might be diminished scientific autonomy: "Every direct or indirect subvention by Government is not only coupled inevitably with bureaucratic types of control, but likewise with political control and with the urge to create pressure groups seeking to advance special interest" [13, p. 35]. The Bush report attempted to allay such fears by pointing out that university administrators and the federal granting agencies would buffer bureaucratic controls. The "scientific worker" need not worry -- individual researchers would retain "a substantial degree of personal and intellectual freedom" [8, p. 19], and bureaucrats friendly to science would shield the universities from congressional micromanagement.

Crucial to bipartisan political support for this arrangement were the concepts of trust and accountability, as well as various assumptions about the motives and reliability of the parties involved. Universities could certainly be trusted to administer federal grants and contracts responsibly; the mission agencies were accountable to Congress and the U.S. president; and scientists were, of course, eminently trustworthy recipients because they were assumed to be interested in accumulating truth, not wealth or power. …

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