With the slow collapse of the automobile industry in the state of Michigan, researching new fields is more important than ever. This point hasn’t been lost on the University, with President Mary Sue Coleman promising more money, time and effort on spent on research in the upcoming years than ever before. But research can only have a positive result if it’s objective and credible. In a recent report by the Department of Health and Human Services, though, 41 unnamed universities were shown to have potential biases that could corrupt their research. These findings signal that the government and universities must mount a more substantive effort to facilitate an objective research climate on campuses.
The report, published on Wednesday and reported by The New York Times, revealed a large amount of bias among university researches. According to the study, 90 percent of universities have few regulations on their researchers when it comes to financial conflicts, and many schools rely on the researchers themselves to report potential conflicts of interest. Many of the researchers held stock or interests in companies that would be affected by their own research and some even served as consultants to businesses in their field of research. For instance, medical researchers may face pressure to produce findings that help specific companies. The National Institutes of Health, which was providing much of the grant money for this research, has said it will be reforming the system soon and that these findings could change future research financing.
The study’s findings are deeply troubling. Researchers need to distance themselves from potential biases primarily to protect the credibility of their work. Universities trust their employees to be working for the common goal of advancing knowledge, and it’s unacceptable that researchers across the country could compromise this goal for petty personal gain. Such researchers produce work that demeans their positions.
But biased research is not only ethically inappropriate at universities, it also degrades these institutions and diminishes their educational output. Across the country — and most of all, perhaps, in Michigan — economic improvements are staked on the students and research that universities are producing. Research polluted by outside influences will be of significantly less value and will not offer the key improvements to the economy that are expected of objective institutions of higher learning.
To protect the important process of research, it’s incumbent upon researchers to behave in a fashion befitting their role of advancing knowledge. But universities are also to blame for allowing this situation to come into existence by not possessing robust oversight systems. Maintaining careful oversight to prevent potential biases and requiring researchers to disclose financial interests relating to their research are some ways in which universities must address their shortcomings. And if they don’t do that, government entities like the NIH should consider restricting funding.
Public universities are supposed to advance and develop knowledge and research that benefits society as whole. When researchers can’t be trusted to produce objective results, U.S. colleges are failing the reason for their very existence. More oversight is needed so that employees of institutions of higher education are personally detached from their fields of study.