The story has been attributed to George Bernard Shaw, but is probably apocryphal, because GBS—although a master wordsmith—was famously tongue-tied when dealing with the opposite sex:
He (to attractive woman just encountered at a bar, or a party): “Would you go to bed with me for one million pounds?”
She (after pausing a moment or two): “For one million pounds, I believe I would.”
He: “What about five pounds?”
She (shocked): “What kind of woman do you take me for?”
He: “We’ve already ascertained that. Now we’re simply haggling over the price.”
So, how much money would it take for you to compromise your principles? And as scholars seeking and obtaining grants and (especially) contracts, to what extent are we in fact compromised by the money we receive? Carl Elliott has written here about some of the compromising that occurs in medical research, and I recently blogged about the Templeton Foundation’s semi-hidden agenda. Here is some first-person testimony:
Several eons ago, when dinosaurs roamed the Earth (in 1973, to be precise), I had just arrived at the University of Washington as a young assistant professor, having spent my first three post-Ph.D. years in the biology department at the State University of New York at Oneonta. Within a week, I was confronted with a moral dilemma requiring me to think through what kind of scientist I wanted to be, or to be taken for. I was offered, quite out of the blue, a contract from the Weyerhauser Corporation, one of the world’s largest timber companies, to the not inconsiderable tune of $275,000 per year for a guaranteed two years, followed by the prospect of annual renewals after that. In return, I was to conduct research on the free-living indigenous primates of Borneo—especially endangered orangutans and proboscis monkeys—focusing especially on the likely impact of logging on these creatures’ well-being and reproduction as well as how to minimize same (i.e., the impact, not the logging).
It turns out that the Weyerhauser Corporation had immense land holdings in Indonesia, along with a proportionately immense desire to “harvest” valuable trees, particularly teak and mahogany. But this was 1973, a time when environmentalism was just beginning to have political impact, and someone at Weyerhauser apparently felt either that (1) it would be useful, as a public relations maneuver, to be able to claim that the company was paying a genuine, independent, research biologist to advise them on how to log their land in a way that was minimally hurtful to the local fauna, or (2) that it really and truly would be a good thing to enlist a genuine, independent, research biologist to advise them on how to proceed in a way that was minimally hurtful to the local fauna.
What to do? $275,000 annually was a lot of dough in those days (and if you’re not Mitt Romney, for most of us it still is, today). It would have paid for a modest research station, two Land Rovers, radio telemetry equipment, a couple of grad students and round-trip air fare to one of the world’s most bio-interesting places. Also, of course, it would have jump-started my own research career. In moving from SUNY, Oneonta, to the University of Washington, I was transitioning from a school that valued faculty collegiality and teaching skill to one that valued research above all and—at least from the administration’s perspective—the way to assess research productivity was (and so some extent still is) via the amount of research money you “bring in.”
On the other hand, I was very sensitive to being perceived as a stooge for the mega-polluters and extractive industries, a “biostitute” whose services are for sale, ready to provide window-dressing for the most egregious environmental assaults – such as logging one of the world’s remaining (and exceedingly delicate) rainforests. On the one hand, the folks at Weyerhauser assured me that I would have complete ownership of my data, and total freedom to publish whatever I wish. At the same time, I was also aware that after receiving and spending $550,000 and thereby becoming king of my own research enterprise, with students and assistants to support, I would be sorely tempted to temper my publications so as not to prejudice continued access to Weyerhauser’s largess.
I brought my dilemma to Bob Lockard, then senior member of UW’s animal behavior area (now, I am the senior member; gulp!) and to Buz Hunt, then psychology department chair, ostensibly seeking their advice, but actually making sure that they knew what I had been offered since I suspected I would decline the money. They both suggested taking it, but keeping my findings carefully walled off from any corporate expectation, and being prepared to accept a funding cut-off if the folks at Weyerhauser were unhappy with what I had to report.
In the end, I turned the money down, a decision that was far from a slam-dunk at the time, and which seems even less wise in retrospect. I preserved my moral virginity (those of you of a certain age may recall the song from Guys and Dolls: “Take back your mink, take back your pearls. What made you think, that I was one of those girls? …”), but at the cost of denying those orangutans and proboscis monkeys of Borneo whatever scientific alliance and support I might otherwise have provided. I dumbfounded the “suits” at Weyerhauser, but perhaps at the cost of pulling the rug from under anyone at that organization who honestly sought the best possible biological input. If qualified, objective biologists refused to take any corporate “dirty money,” then how can we criticize the corporations for proceeding without our advice?
In retrospect, I fear that I selfishly valued my own moral probity over whatever genuine good I might have accomplished with those Weyerhauser dollars. I wasn’t for sale … at least, not for $275,000 per year. (What about a million dollars?)
It was a dilemma then, and is no less a dilemma now.