Many Americans assume that research funded by the federal government is the most trustworthy form of research. However, nearly every aspect of the federal grant making process is full of political maneuvering and potential bias.
Learn more about government-funded science specifically at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Institutes of Health, and National Institute for Environmental Health Science.
Bias of Funding
Most researchers know that in order to get the large grants they need to publish research that will further their careers, they need to apply for grants from the federal government. Most scientific research is supported through government grants from agencies such as the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, etc. However, all these agencies are ultimately accountable to Congress for their total funding and Congress often passes legislation dedicating funds to a particular field of research. That means elected officials have a great deal of say over which research gets funded.
Even when the funding is dedicated to a particular agency with no clear research direction, there are political appointees and bureaucrats that have the power to dole out grants. And as the number of available grants shrink due to federal budget restraints, the competition for these grants and the pressure to provide meaningful results grows.
Peer Review Problems
Many government research organizations have their own journals that publish government-funded research. Despite their affiliation with these agencies, not all studies are subject to rigorous peer review prior to publication. When these studies are then released to the media, journalists are quick to trust the findings of studies associated with such prestigious government research organizations, even absent a thorough review of the studies’ methodologies and conclusions by fellow experts.
One of the glaring examples of this peer review flaw occurred in early 2014 when the Proceeding of the National Academy of Sciences published a study, “Female hurricanes are deadlier than male hurricanes.” The study’s finding that implicit sexism makes people take female-named storms less seriously than male storms was reported widely by major media outlets like NPR and the Washington Post. Yet after it was widely reported, other scientists identified a major, basic flaw with the study’s methodology.
According to Ed Yong with National Geographic, “For a start, they analyzed hurricane data from 1950, but hurricanes all had female names at first. They only started getting male names on alternate years in 1979. This matters because hurricanes have also, on average, been getting less deadly over time.”
Peer review has also been cited as a problem in government regulatory agencies. The Environmental Protection Agency, for instance, has been frequently criticized for its process of selecting experts to serve on the agency’s Science Advisory Board, which reviews the science used as justification for EPA’s regulatory decisions. In a review of the agency’s progress on scientific integrity, the Government Accountability Office noted that there are “limitations in the policies and procedures developed by EPA’s Science Advisory Board to ensure that its panels’ peer reviewers are independent and that a balance of viewpoints is represented on each panel. These limitations could reduce the effectiveness of the Board overall by contributing to its being perceived as biased and could inadvertently expose some panelists to violations of federal conflict-of-interest laws.