Ethical questions in research funding: the case of ethics centers

I read a piece in Inside Higher Ed today on the ethics of accepting funds from different sources. In engineering, this is certainly an important issue, but the article focused Cynthia Jones, an ethics professor at UT-Pan American who directs the PACE ethics center. Jones had this stunningly ignorant thing to say about Department of Defense funding:

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

I’m flabbergasted that someone who works on philosophy applied to a technological field, namely biomedical ethics, believes that the only use of lasers is to kill people. Perhaps she thinks that using lasers in surgery is unethical. Or, more likely, she is unaware of how basic research in science is actually funded in this country.

Certainly, there’s been a definite shift over time in how defense-related agencies have targeted their funds — they fund much less basic research (or basic applied research) and have focused more on deliverables and technologies that more directly support combat, future warriors, and the like. This presents important ethical questions for researchers who may oppose the use of military force (or how it has been used recently) but who are interested in problems that could be “spun” towards satisfying these new objectives from DARPA, ARO, ONR, and AFOSR. Likewise, there are difficult questions about the line between independent research and consulting work for companies who may fund your graduate students. Drawing sharp distinctions in these situations is hard — everybody has their own comfort zone.

Jones wrote an article on “Dirty Money” that tries to develop rules for when money is tainted and when it is not. She comes up with a checklist at the end of the article that says funds should not be accepted if they

1- are illegal or that operate illegally in one’s country, or when the funding violates a generally accepted doctrine signed by one’s country (keeping in mind there is sometimes a distinction between legally acceptable and morally acceptable); or
2- originate from a donor who adds controls that would conflict with the explicit or implicit goals of the project to be funded or that would conflict with the proper functioning of the project or the profession’s ethical guidelines.

This, she says, is “the moral minimum.” This framing (and the problem in general of funding centers) that she addresses sidesteps the ethical questions around research that is funded by writing proposals, and indeed the question of soliciting funds. Even in the world of charitable giving, the idea that funders wander through the desert with bags of money searching for fundees seems odd. I think the more difficult ethical quandary is that of solicitation. At a “moral minimum” the fundee has to think about these questions, but I think point 2 needs a lot more unpacking because of the chicken-and-egg question of matching proposed research to program goals.

I don’t want to sound so super-negative! I think it’s great that someone is looking at the ethics of the economics of how we fund research. It’s just that there’s a whole murkier lake beyond the murky pond of funding centers, and the moral issues of science/engineering funding are not nearly as simple as Jones’s remark indicates.


The Wizard of The Crow [N’gugi wa Thiong’o] — This is an epic political farce about an African dictatorship. It’s a bit slow getting into it, but once I was about 70 pages in I was hooked. It’s absolutely hilarious and tragic at the same time. I’ve not read a book like this in a while. Ngugi’s imagination is broad and open, so the absurd situations just keep escalating and mutating. One of the effects is that if you looked at the situation midway through the book, you would ordinarily have no idea how things came to such a state, but thanks to the storytelling you can see the absurd (yet stepwise somewhat reasonable) sequence of events that led there. From now on I will always have the phrase “queueing mania” in my head. Highly recommended.

Proofs and Refutations [Imre Lakatos] — “Why did I not read this book years ago?” I asked myself about a third of the way through this book. Lakatos breaks down the process of mathematical reasoning by example, showing how arguments (and statements) are refined through an alternating process of proof-strategies and counterexamples. It’s a bit of a dry read but it made me more excited about trying to take on some new and meatier theoretical problems. It also made me want to read some Feyerabend, which I am doing now…

The Crown of Embers [Rae Carson] — a continuation of Carson’s YA series set in a sort of pseudo Spanish colonialist fantasy land. It’s hard to parse out the politics of it, but I’m willing to see where the series goes before deciding if it is really subverts the typical racial essentialization that’s typical of fantasy. The colonial aspect of it makes it most problematic.

The Wee Free Men [Terry Pratchett] — a YA Discworld novel. Feels fresher than the other later Pratchett Discworld books.

Equal Rites [Terry Pratchett] — an early Discworld novel. Feels a little thinner than some of the others, but it had some cute moments.

The Republic of Wine [Mo Yan] — Another political farce, this time set in China. This has to be one of the more grotesque and crass novels I have read… maybe ever. The title might be better translated (and Americanized) as “Boozelandia.” The novel is part correspondence between an author (named Mo Yan) and an aspiring writer from the state of “Liquorland,” partly short stories by said aspiring writer, and partly a story about an investigator sent to ascertain whether state officials are raising children to be eaten at fancy dinners. It’s got a kind of gonzo style that will definitely appeal to some. I liked it in the end but I was also totally unaware of what I was getting into when I opened it.


Another cool optical illusion.

I recently visited Taos, NM, and the sky there was clear and you could see so many stars. I was listening today to Debussy’s Arabesque #1 and it brought back memories of Jack Horkheimer‘s Star Hustler (c.f. this episode from 1991). Horkheimer passed away in 2010, but his show was a PBS staple.

A series of blog posts about quantiatively assessing if America is becoming more secular : Parts one, two, and three.

Ian Hacking’s introduction to the new edition of Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (via MeFi).

More reasons to miss California. I do like Chicago, but… dumplings!


When I was a freshman I took an intro bio class co-taught by Prof. Lodish. One of the things he harped on (and which annoyed me) was how you could make a lot of money if you discover things like how EPO works. I guess that is true if you hype your claims, but is that how science is supposed to work?

The EU pushes for publicly funded research to be, well, available to the public.

Via Bookslut, Richard Rorty on Heidegger as a Nazi, and how to negotiate the line between a writer’s politics (which may be abhorrent) and their ideas (which may be brilliant). Not sure I agree with him, but it’s worth reading.

Alex Smola makes a case for not sharing data. As someone who works a little on data sharing now, I appreciate his point.

I grew up on a steady diet of David Macaulay’s books, including the fantastic and hilarious Motel of the Mysteries. Via MetaFilter, here’s a collection of links to interviews and other fun stuff.

Bayesianism in philosophy

In an effort to get myself more philosophically informed with regards to probability and statistics, I’ve been reading about various notions and their discontents, such as symmetry, or Bayesianism, or p-values. I was delighted to find this recent pair of papers (part I,part II) by fellow Berkeley-ite and occasional puzzle-partner Kenny Easwaran (now a prof at USC) on Bayesianism in Philosophy Compass. In the first paper he goes through basic tenets of Bayesian approaches to probability in terms of subjective belief, and their philosophical justification via rational actions or “Dutch book” arguments and representation theorems. What’s also interesting from a scientific view (somewhat off-topic from the article) is the angle being advanced (some might say “pushed”) by some cognitive scientists that people are actually doing some kind of Bayesian conditionalization in certain tasks (here’s a plug for my buddy Pradeep‘s work). The second article talks about the difficulties in developing a consistent and quantitative “confirmation theory” in Bayesianism. In different fields there are different questions how how to do this, and as Kenny points out, the anti-Bayesians in different fields are different — the null-position is not necessarily frequentism.

They’re a relatively quick read, and I think provide some different perspectives for those of us who usually see these concepts in our little fiefdoms.

Quote of the day : the ethical “success” of probability

I am reading Ian Hacking’s The Taming of Chance, which I picked up from The Seminary Coop upon arriving here. They just had it on the shelf! The book, as he puts it, is a way to understand why probability has been “an incredible success story” in the realms of metaphysics, epistemology, logic, and ethics. By success he means probabilistic ideas have radically changed these areas. On the last point:

Ethics is in part the study of what to do. Probability cannot dictate values, but it now lies at the basis of all reasonable choice made by officials. No public decision, no risk analysis, no environmental impact, no military strategy can be conducted without decision theory couched in terms of probabilities. By covering opinion with a veneer of objectivity, we replace judgement by computation.


The Gangster We Are All Looking For (lê thi diem thúy) — This is a fragmented and short narrative of a young Vietnamese immigrant to the US and her time growing up in various neighborhoods in San Diego. It’s the KPBS One Book, One San Diego selection so there were 25 copies at the library. The little vignettes are fleeting but touching, but in a sense you don’t feel that the narrator is particularly introspective, at least not in a direct way. However, I think it was definitely worth reading, if for no other reason than to hear her unique perspective.

The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim (Jonathan Coe) — A satirical novel which came recommended but which in the end I felt cheated by. Maxwell Sim embarks on a new job after a recent divorce and few months off for depression, and ends up learning new things about himself and his family. He’s a bit of a loser, to be honest, but in the end you kind of feel for him as he muddles through emails, old letters, facebook, and the like. What is a big cheat is the ending, in which the author (!) appears. Blech.

Symmetry and Its Discontents (Sheridan Zabell) — A lovely collection of essays on the philosophy, history, and mathematics of symmetry assumptions in problems of induction. The last two chapters are especially good as they discuss a bit of the history and background of such things as Good-Turing estimators and exchangeable partition processes. I learned about this book a while ago from Susan Holmes at the AIM Workshop on estimating probability distributions.

Electronic Elections (R. Michael Alvarez and Thad E. Hall) — A short but dense book that makes the case for a “risk management” approach to assessing the value of electronic voting machines. Electronic voting machines have all sorts of benefits, including better accessibility for the disabled, no “hanging chads,” and so on. But they are also woefully unsecure and hackable, as has been demonstrated time and again by computer security folks. Alvarez and Hall feel like the CS folks are being unfair and think (in a very nebulous way) that the benefits outweigh the risks. I found the data about voter confusion and error rates, etc. interesting, but I think the authors completely miss the point of the security community’s critique of electronic voting systems. Designing a shoddy electronic voting system is bad, regardless of the purported benefits.