Science Has a Major Fraud Problem. Here’s Why Government Funding Is the Likely Culprit

The system of “checks and balances” in scientific research is completely off-kilter.

President Biden’s 2024 budget includes over $210 billion directed toward federal research and development, an approximately $9 billion increase from 2023 funding. That might not sound particularly bad—after all, who doesn’t like science and innovation?

But, although seemingly noble, the billions pumped into the US government’s National Science Foundation don’t always translate into finding cures for debilitating diseases, or developing groundbreaking technologies.

In recent years, although technology and peer-review techniques have become more widespread, fraud has remained a consistent issue. The problem has gotten so out of hand that world-class researchers and medical ethics analysts believe the public should be aware of the widespread inaccuracies plaguing medicine.

Dr. Richard Smith, the former editor-in-chief of the BMJ and cofounder of the Committee on Medical Ethics (COPE), details,

Health professionals and journal editors reading the results of a clinical trial assume that the trial happened and that the results were honestly reported. But about 20% of the time, said Ben Mol, professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Monash Health, they would be wrong. As I’ve been concerned about research fraud for 40 years, I wasn’t as surprised as many would be by this figure, but it led me to think that the time may have come to stop assuming that research actually happened and is honestly reported, and assume that the research is fraudulent until there is some evidence to support it having happened and been honestly reported.

Independent analysis done by J. B. Carlisle confirms Dr. Smith’s suspicions. As Carlisle analyzed dozens of government-funded control trials, he found a staggering 44% contained false data. These findings are swept under the rug by most mainstream news outlets, which is a problem in itself. If government-funded research produces such sloppy results, the taxpayers funding it at least deserve to know the outcomes of the experiments they paid for.

Getting to the Root of the Problem

To understand why government-funded research tends to be so inaccurate, it's crucial to look at history and remember how government involvement in research started.

It all ties back to the National Science Foundation (NSF), one of the first government agencies built for funding science. In the late 1940s, one of the most outspoken supporters of the NSF was Democratic Senator Harley Kilgore. His motivations were clear: the NSF was to provide the government with a pool of educated researchers that could be used for strategic purposes during the Cold War. Scientific inquisition was never the primary purpose of the NSF.

In addition to this, the system of “checks and balances” in scientific research is completely off-kilter. Private journals risk damage to their reputation if it is revealed that they have published fraudulent research. Privately funded journals compete to be the best among pools of hundreds of other publications. To maintain legitimacy in the eyes of future researchers and funders, publishing high quality research is in the private journal’s self-interest.

Academic institutions funded by governments, on the other hand, are motivated to shield their researchers, as researchers play a crucial role in securing substantial grant funding for the institution, often reaching into the millions of dollars. Government exists in a playing field outside the private sector—they aren’t competing against other specialized journals. Because they aren’t specialized and fund a wide array of projects, they can often afford to let “a few bad apples” through (unfortunately, at the expense of taxpayers).

The source of funding also undoubtedly (at the very least subconsciously) sways the research outcomes. There are several ways the government introduces bias into research. For one, the state often ignores certain scientific queries, forcing researchers to adopt different hypotheses or study different questions to gain any funding. Without any market forces guiding research and development, study objectives start aligning more with the interests of bureaucrats and less with the interests of patients.

Government agencies also don’t want to fund proposals that contradict the agency’s political ideas. If the research’s outcome even slightly threatens the government’s power, funding is likely to be cut off, often for extended periods. These outcomes are clearest when it comes to funding regarding the social sciences and economics, but also occur with life science research. 34% percent of scientists receiving federal funding have acknowledged engaging in research misconduct to align research with their funder’s political and economic agenda. Moreover, a mere 24% of these researchers have disclosed these ethically questionable research practices to their supervisors.

This incentive structure also explains why there is a limited amount of research into the accuracy of government-funded research. Many researchers are simply too afraid of the funding and reputational consequences that come with revealing problems with government funding. When there is research into federal funding bias, it is often concentrated on very specific and politically divisive topics (such as the use of stem cells). A team of researchers at the CATO Institute found just 44 Google Scholar articles from 2010-2014 that dealt with this type of government bias influencing research.

The Private-Sector Alternative

The government’s overpowering role in science simultaneously crowds out private sources of funding. Despite this, there is some good news: the private sector is getting more and more involved in scientific funding by the day.

Globally, 70% of science is financed privately. Charities like the American Cancer Foundation and Howard Hughes Medical Institute collectively contribute billions of dollars to spurring innovation in their respective fields.

For example, renowned neurologist Dr. Helen Mayberg’s research into deep brain stimulation as a depression treatment wasn’t supported by government grants. Instead, private sources funded her research. Yet, her discoveries led to additional trials and eventually breakthroughs in the way depression is treated.

Most Americans treat government-funded science as the holy grail of scientific research, but it truly isn’t. Without proper market signals guiding the direction of research, millions of tax dollars are lost, and thousands of hours of scientific research are wasted. As Milton Friedman explained regarding government funding of science, “The scientific ability of really able people is being diverted from the goals they would like to pursue themselves to the goals of government officials.” It's up to the next generation to decide who they trust more: scientists, or the state?