Are researchers who take corporate funding selling out?

Adam Smith writes:  Academics like a good gossip as much as the next person. Many of them enjoy a grumble about their vice-chancellor over a cup of tea and exchanging rumours about colleagues’ professional and personal antics. One of the things that many academics talk about most is funding. I speak to researchers all the time about the competition they face, the politics they must play and the pain they endure when writing a grant application. Most recently, I had a conversation on this topic with researcher Elisabeth Hill, and we spoke about not just public funders but also corporate funders. Hill has hit upon a new way to help people with a certain neurodevelopmental disorder by making them play computer games, so she suddenly has a new potential stream of funding: the companies that make the computer consoles.

I’ve produced a full podcast on Elisabeth’s recent work  but here’s a little background. Elisabeth, who’s based at Goldsmiths University of London, studies developmental coordination disorder, also known as  DCD or dyspraxia.  DCD is a difficulty that some people have with movement: they find it harder to coordinate their limbs to, for example, kick a ball or draw inside the lines. Elisabeth’s most recent study, in partnership with Sussex Medical School, found marked improvements in DCD children who were asked to play on a Nintendo Wii compared to DCD children who took part in a more established therapy programme known as Jump Ahead, in which the children are asked to perform fine skills such as threading beads onto a string.

When the opportunity to do the study with the medical school and other researchers came up, Elisabeth had to get it running very soon. She had no time to apply for a large grant or even to plan a watertight methodology with a large number of participants. But the data that she did collect in what has become a pilot study will help her to apply for money to fund a bigger study—and thinking about who might fund it. “There are so many different things to weigh up,” she told me.

Of course, one of the most obvious problems of corporate funding, should Elisabeth go down that route, is ethics. Companies spend billions on funding research and development, from pharmaceutical products to green energy to human behaviour. Indeed, over recent years, public research funding has been directed increasingly to projects and universities that grow the public money by using it to attract corporate money too. Many predict that as the public research budget continues to fall in real terms over the next few years, more and more researchers will be seeking alternative funding.

If Elisabeth and colleagues accept funding from a games console maker like Nintendo, and it turns out that playing the games helps people with DCD, will anyone believe her? If she turns down corporate funding and the study never gets off the ground, will DCD sufferers be denied a potential therapy because of the researchers’ ethics? Have a listen to Elisabeth and me discussing these issues and let us know what you think: Dyspraxia 2 – research issues


Transcript: Are researchers who take corporate funding selling out?

Adam Smith talks to Elisabeth Hill

 AS: So this is still just a small study, a small number of children, but it does show a statistically significant improvement.

EH: Yes.

 AS: Did Nintendo fund the study?

 EH: No, Nintendo did not fund the study. The medical school funded the study in as much as they pay up to a certain amount for costs related to their students going to do work. So to some extent it was funded through goodwill, everybody thinking it was important, wanting to get the information and doing it for that reason.

AS: So if you are looking to this bigger scale study, presumably you are in a better position to apply for funding when you have some preliminary data like the kind of preliminary data you have now, so is that part of the plan? Is there a master plan, Elisabeth?

EH: The master plan was always to get some preliminary data that would first of all hopefully support our hunch, if you like, which was based on clinical intuition and observing and having worked around these children for quite a long time between us. But yes, the plan was to get some initial data that assuming it supported our hunch at least to some extent we could use to then actually show the benefit and the importance of this approach in a big grant application or to attract a corporate sponsor.

AS: Nintendo?

EH: Nintendo would be great, although I haven’t managed to find anyone who’s ever successfully sought funding from them. Another way to do it would be to broaden out. Since we started this study, X-Box Kinect has become more physically related.

 AS: And that’s made by Microsoft.

EH: That’s Microsoft, who are very involved with research, particularly in Cambridge, in this country. So that might be another way of moving more into the corporate market.

AS: Now would you want a corporation to fund the research because the minute you publish the research, everyone’s going to say, obviously they’re going to find what they found, if it’s a positive intervention this is, because they were funded by the person who seeks to benefit from it?

EH: Absolutely, it’s another issue for researchers. Actually when Goldsmiths put out a press release about this Wii work, and it was sort of all over newspaper websites. I was having a look at some of them and the comments on, for example, the Daily Mail page, were very much, ‘well this is funded by Nintendo’, and of course what you want to say it, no it wasn’t. Funding for intervention studies needs a significant amount of money, you’d be talking of hundreds of thousands of pounds to do it properly because really to do it properly you need research assistants who can recruit a lot f individuals, going into schools, several times a week often, supporting parents, working very much with what you often heard termed as the user group, so children with DCD, their parents, their teachers, giving them the appropriate support and information. You need testers who do these assessments both before and after, who are what we call blind to the children’s intervention group so whether it’s the Wii or the Jump Ahead or the waiting list or whatever. And also to any diagnosis the child might have, so if you’re comparing a child with poor motor skills to children who have age-appropriate motor skill – which would be another thing you’d ideally build in – you want the testers not to know which children they’re working with. So you can reduce any bias that they unconsciously put into those assessments, even though those assessments are very objective, it’s how fast it was, how many times you fell over, it can still unintentionally be biased, subtly.

AS: If you designed the study in the way you’d like to see it done and if Nintendo or Microsoft said, yes, we’ll give you the amount of money you need, would you accept it?

EH: I would think quite carefully about it. The press office here, and media recruitment and PR department are really really good and really well connected and very good at working out or knowing which organisations will or won’t do what they’ve said. Some companies are much better at giving the money and saying, OK, you’ll find what you find and we will go with that. And I think Microsoft from what I’ve heard is probably one of those organisations. As an academic you’ve always got this balance between wanting to get work achieved is really important to users, is going to make a real impact in their lives, and funding difficulties and there is, I think, and for me, a moral line at which you chose or not to step over. And you have to be particularly wary of corporate funding because of course they will have an expectation and I can understand why that is. But as a scientist and an academic researcher, you try to be completely objective. We drive funders, corporate and charity funders and journalists and all sorts of people mad, because there’s not black and white to research academics. Everything’s always grey. Or there’s always a ‘what if’.

AS: “It’s a bit more complicated than that.”

EH: Yes, absolutely, and obviously corporate sponsors need to be able to talk to their shareholders or their boards or whoever about black and white. Their funding needs to be able to make an impact now, and they need to be able to say what that financial gain will have been.

AS: Do you have a gut feeling?

EH: My gut feeling is that if it was a reasonably ethical company I would go with it. Because intervention work is really hard to fund.

AS: So what is next on this particular work, the Wii Fit or X-Box Kinect work, are you working on a grant application?

EH: We’re at the moment in the process of trying to work out what would be strategically the best way to go with it. And working between Mid-Sussex PCT, or whatever they’re called today, sort of Oxford Brookes and here [Goldsmiths], is quite a puzzle. It’s quite difficult to get everybody together.

AS: And when you say the strategic direction, do you mean in the regard to the funding or the research itself and the methodology?

EH: I think both. So for example the other collaborators are very involved in cerebral palsy work. So the direction of do you make it a big study of DCD, do you make it a big study of children with a variety of movement difficulties, do you apply to research councils or to NHS or to funding schemes, or do you put out a campaign, if you like, to get corporate sponsorship or charity sponsorship or individuals sponsoring? That’s all quite tricky to decide because there are so many things to weigh up.

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