Ethicist Cynthia Jones (center) with Lawrence Gelman (right), a Tea Party activist and one of her funders.

'Dirty Money'

August 28, 2014

People get furious with Cynthia Jones. Philosophy is known as the blood sport of the humanities, and Jones, an associate professor of philosophy at the University of Texas-Pan American, doesn’t shrink from conflict. But she’d been sparring not just with fellow philosophers in seminar rooms, but with people from all corners of her campus.

UT-Pan American, where Jones directs an ethics center, sits about 20 miles from the Mexican border. The university is not connected to the big money in Texas. To survive, the ethics center needs external funding. In seeking outside grants, however, Jones made enemies -- and ran into ethical quandaries she didn’t expect.

“Pretty much everyone I’ve taken money from over the years, somebody didn’t like,” she said. “There is no moral exemplar of goodness that I can take money from but that no one’s pissed off about … I’ve had people yell at me from all seven colleges on my campus.”

One colleague cornered Jones after learning she funds a bioethics conference with money from Doctors Hospital at Renaissance, a physician-owned facility where doctors receive a share of the profits the hospital makes from tests and surgery. This type of hospital, critics argue, gives physicians “an unholy temptation” to perform unnecessary tests and surgeries, Atul Gawande wrote in a New Yorker article that cast the hospital as illustrative of wasteful, revenue-focused practices in American health care.

That hospital almost killed my wife, the colleague told her.

Another group of colleagues objected to her taking money from Lawrence Gelman, a local Tea Party activist, to fund a constitutional essay contest -- despite the fact that the winning essays are routinely liberal, Jones said. This year’s winning essay extolled the virtues of Roe v. Wade, to the donor’s dismay.

She’s also accepted money from the U.S. Department of Justice. “We know they’ve done awful things,” Jones said.

But while her funding sources attract ire, researchers in other fields get off easy, she said. Where was the outrage, she wondered, over researchers in the university’s engineering college who took money from the Department of Defense to build lasers?

“What the hell are we going to use lasers for except to kill people?” Jones said. “But scientists get cut the slack.”

Her critics all had different answers to the same question: what’s morally permissible when it comes to research funding? So Jones thought she’d address the matter head-on. She was an ethicist, after all. Thus a feud among colleagues prodded its way into the pages of an academic journal.

In “Dirty Money,” published in May in the Journal of Academic Ethics, Jones dissects arguments that critics of “tainted” funding sources often raise. And she considers whether ethicists and ethics centers have special obligations when it comes to choosing donors. (Her answer: no.) Her essay attempts to create a framework to help scholars in cash-strapped research centers make ethical funding decisions. But the piece is also a defense of her choices, a chance for her to strike back at critics by exposing what she perceives as inconsistencies in their arguments.

When Is Money ‘Dirty’?

Some research funding sources are especially contentious. Studies bankrolled by tobacco companies, oil and gas companies and pharmaceutical companies frequently draw suspicion. These companies have a history of undermining research and failing to report results that cast their products in a poor light, Jones writes.

But these sources aren’t inherently problematic, her analysis argues. And previous research scandals involving such companies don’t disqualify them as legitimate donors. This position accords with that of the American Association of University Professors, which in the past has opposed bans on research funded by the tobacco industry, saying such bans violate academic freedom.

Jones argues that two criteria determine which funding sources are morally permissible and which are morally prohibited. A researcher or institution cannot accept money from sources that operate illegally, she writes. Nor can research funding come with “strings attached.” Meeting these two principles – avoiding funding that is illegal and/or offered as a quid pro quo – satisfies the “moral minimum,” Jones argues. These criteria pass muster even from a utilitarian point of view that regards only consequences as ethically important. “It is hard to imagine that funding would maximize the greatest good” if either principle were violated, she writes.

No other argument against a funding source stands on its own, Jones holds. Still, she delves into a number of such arguments, and tests the validity of each.

Critics often object to researchers accepting money from organizations that violate a university’s mission of “social responsibility.” Guilty organizations might include tobacco companies or websites that sell research papers to students, she writes. Applying this objection consistently, Jones argues, would rule out funding from companies that make products that endanger public health – such as soda manufacturers. For the same reason, the objection that a funding source “creates harmful products” is deficient, she holds. If this objection were enough to disqualify a funding source, researchers would have to eschew money from fast food chains, wine growers and sports car manufacturers – not just tobacco companies.

And it’s acceptable, she says, to take money from an unethical donor -- as long as the donor doesn’t direct the researcher to slant her results. Just because a company engages in unethical practices doesn’t mean it can’t also fund projects that do good, Jones argues.

She also bats away the concern that accepting funding might give a company legitimacy, or leave the impression that the university is condoning an unethical entity. “Determining the motives of a donor is not easy, although it is also not necessary,” Jones writes. “[T]here is no reason to assume that funding is inappropriate merely because a donor hopes to gain something by providing the funding. If no inappropriate strings are attached … the funding source is viable.”

Arguments that researchers should avoid funding sources with ethically dubious histories also fall short, she holds. (Jones calls this argument the “sins of the past” criterion.) A problem arises only if there are strings attached to the money, she says.

Finally, the claim that all private money is “dirty” is tunnel-eyed, Jones holds. “It’s amusing that we think government money is somehow clean but private money is somehow dirty,” she said in an interview. “I look at the state of Texas and I say, for God’s sake, our government is more ethically suspect than our funding sources.”

Kenneth Pimple, who teaches and writes about research ethics at Indiana University's Poynter Center for the Study of Ethics and American Institutions, said he doubts that "there's any clean money today, if there ever was." He found Jones's analysis convincing, on the whole. But she understates two concerns that others often overstate, he said.

A university, a center or a researcher that accepts money from a "tainted" source takes a risk. That risk grows each time such funding is sought or accepted. "Somewhere along the line," Pimple said, "repetition of risky behavior fades into unacceptably irresponsible behavior, which is more or less equivalent to unethical behavior." 

Second, Pimple said, Jones understates the likelihood that a researcher will "conform to the norms or desires of the funder -- that dirty money will pervert the recipient."

"One contact with one unclean company is unlikely to spoil you entirely, but we do tend to try to please our benefactors," he said. "It might be possible, even easy, to accept money once from a tainted source without being affected. But how long can that go on?"

Jones concedes that a murky area exists between “strings attached” funding -- wherein a donor places constraints on the research -- and research that’s entirely free of outside pressure. But the real problem in such cases is the “weakness on the part of a researcher, center, or university that would allow the objectivity of their work to be undermined by their perception that it would please the funding source,” she writes.

“It has to come down to the integrity of the researcher,” Jones said.

Taking outside funding as inevitable, she advocates heightened standards of transparency when it comes to disclosing funding sources. Researchers should list their funding sources on their websites, and disclose funding at the beginning, not the end, of publications. “It should be stated at the outset – here’s where my money comes from, here’s what I’ve got to say,” Jones said. “We live in a generation where people don’t read to the end.”

Her standards may seem relaxed. But Jones, for her part, has rejected funding offers. “I have turned money down,” she said. “I won’t tell you from whom.”

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