In 2009, there was a faux controversy called Climategate, in which a climate change research server was hacked and private emails were leaked. This event was then spun to create the impression that human-caused climate change was all a big conspiracy.
What exactly was the alleged motive for these scientists to make up climate change?
Easy; they did it for that sweet, sweet grant money. A 2018 article by the Heritage Foundation think tank entitled “Follow the (Climate Change) Money” makes the same claim. (Speaking of following the money, the Heritage Foundation itself received money from ExxonMobil until 2012).
(Grant) money makes a straightforward motive for any suspicious shenanigans in the scientific community. Just say the right things in your grant application and Uncle Sam will drop a fat stack of cash on your doorstep. Who wouldn’t fudge their data a bit to live like a king off of the National Science Foundation?
Except….that’s not how grants work at all.
Your confusion is understandable. Despite the importance of science to modern life, the basics of how research is funded and how funding is administered are almost never discussed.
Grants are simply money for research purposes. They are provided by the government, charitable foundations, industries, and other sources with an interest in research. How a grant works is often extremely specific to the grant and funding agencies. Sometimes the individual has control over the grant, sometimes the institution. Grants can be used to hire personnel, buy equipment, or fund travel for field work, among other things.
Whatever the particulars, the amount of money a researcher can make off of a grant is extremely limited. For scientists at universities, their salary is set by the university. However, grants may enable a scientist to maintain their salary over the summer — typically, academic positions are only paid during the school year. In addition, some grants may even allow for a scientist’s salary to be completely covered for a time so that they can focus exclusively on research and have a break from the teaching and service obligations that come with an academic post.
But, even though grant money isn’t usually directly motivating scientists to sell their souls, it can still impact research in other ways. For starters, there is evidence that the source of funding is correlated with results tilted in the direction preferred by the funder, a.k.a. funding bias or sponsorship bias, which is especially prominent for industry-funded research.
The availability of grants can also channel research to certain topics and kinds of projects. For instance, long-term exploratory research is poorly supported, since most grant-funded research is expected to show results by the end of the grant (usually in less than 3 years). Some science policy experts worry that these deadlines impede the kind of risky, ambitious research that has brought us major breakthroughs.
However, it is not always the best research project that gets the grant. Grants by their nature are prospective, and it is difficult to tell which projects are going to pay off ahead of time. In fact, this process is so difficult that some scientists recommend awarding grants by lottery — and some agencies have followed this advice! Other times, for whatever reason, potentially promising research trajectories are simply not in vogue.
For example, there is far less money available for community health research than for novel pharmaceutical agents. This of course makes sense for industry-funded research, since funding agencies want to sell a drug at the end of the research rather than simply be stuck encouraging people to exercise. But, even government agencies can get trapped in blinkered funding patterns with problematic consequences. After all, the results of the scientific community don’t just depend on how good research is, but also on which research gets supported in the first place.
For better or worse, grants do indeed have a formative influence on science and, like many other institutional aspects of science, are often neglected factors in understanding the results and the priorities of the scientific community. Nonetheless, the desire for grants is not the kind of thing that can lead to the large-scale production of deliberately misleading science. If that’s what one is interested in, rather than bribing scientists with grants, I recommend hiring a public relations firm.