I’ve been in my graduate program for just 1.5 years now, and in the industry for just over 5 years. It’s easy to see the “it’s who you know” advice play strong in research. Professors sit through often mundane presentations for 8 to 12 hours at a conference (much of it provided by graduate students with bad science, bad presentation skills, or even both). Then companies sponsor dinners and receptions, plan trips to bars and events, or buy suites to events to impress scientists.
Golf outings, sponsored trips to conferences in nice places, and being on retainer can all be par for the course.
In my personal opinion, these “goodwill” gestures aren’t effectively wooing science 95% of the time. For example, buying a low-paid graduate student’s beer won’t alter research results (I hope!). But, the long-term relationships that can develop between researchers and funders can create some steady streams of money through one person’s lab or one university department. A scientist’s job is to challenge the status quo, but if they’re also thinking, “I can’t anger company X, so I better not research Y,” we have a difficult ethics issue.
Companies not the only problem: reputation matters
But it isn’t just corporate and for-profit companies demanding results. USDA and the National Institutes of Health, by far the most prestigious world of research piggy banks, demand results. And, when looking for a solution to a big fat problem (read parts 1 and 2) like a nationwide heart attack epidemic for the country’s most powerful people, they demand results now.
In animal science, “good” results equal a p-value of 0.05, or a 1 in 20 chance that the results are bogus. In other fields, the p-value is much lower (like medicine). But, without a value of 0.05 or less, the research is often worth nothing. I think we’re lucky in dairy science – and especially nutrition – that when we find no difference it relates directly to economic one (you can replace item A with item B in the ration). But in other sciences, and sometimes dairy, if a researcher is setting out to prove something and finds an insignificant difference, they often keep looking or never publish anything.
I think every researcher, no matter how modest, is hoping in the back of their mind that someone like me, a member of the press, will send their message out to more people. Of course, they want it done accurately, but no one gets too upset when their life’s work gets a page in a magazine. Or the front page of a newspaper.
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