American Sociological Association

Case 21. Objectivity and Incentives

Situation

Corine Donnelly, Ph.D., is on the faculty at a regional university and her research expertise is in the area of evaluation of training programs. She routinely conducts evaluations and the grant dollars fund her salary as well as support research assistantships of a number of graduate students. As an expert in this area, Dr. Donnelly has received a contract with an employment-training firm (Backtowork, Inc.) to assess the effectiveness of their demonstration program for job training and placement. The results of this study are needed within 3 months so that Backtowork, Inc. can include the results in a federal grant proposal. Favorable results will guarantee the firm's receipt of federal funding to expand their program nationwide. Whatever Dr. Donnelly finds, her university will receive $125,000 to cover the expenses of the research over the 3 month period. However, if the results are positive, Dr. Donnelly has been assured by a Backtowork representative that she will be contracted to conduct ongoing evaluations of the nationwide job training and placement program over the next five years.

Questions

  1. What kinds of potential biases are created by incentives such as the promise of future evaluation contracts?
  2. Backtowork, Inc. is under pressure to validate the effectiveness of its program and Dr. Donnelly is conscious of this. If you were Dr. Donnelly, what would you do to retain your objectivity in this study?
  3. Society as a whole has many concerns about the relationship between scientists in academic research institutions and private business/industry. What are some of these concerns and what principles should be guide these relationships?

Discussion

The area of ethical concern raised here is that importance of objectivity, in the face of a potential conflict, future financial incentives. Researchers must take steps to avoid undue influence. Dr. Donnelly must make clear to Backtowork that they will use the highest standards of science in the research (see Section 14.01a of the Code). She should explain to Backtowork representatives who contracted the research that it is in their best interests in the long run to have reliable and valid information about their job training and placement program. If their program is not effective as designed, then research can provide valuable information about appropriate modifications to enhance its effectiveness.

For researchers within the academy whose salary may be determined, in part, by the receipt of grants, the guarantee of future funding is difficult to ignore. However, the promise of future work represents depending not on the quality of the research, but on its outcomes in a particular direction, violates the very nature of social science research. As such, Dr. Donnelly must be conscious of this pressure and strictly adhere to the standard of scientific objectivity. Her integrity will be compromised if the study does not adhere to the highest standards of scientific investigations.

What steps should researchers take to insulate themselves from having biases, however unintentional, enter into their work? Setting up and relying on reference groups other than the contractor would be useful. To maintain her objectivity and have it validated, Dr. Donnelly should involve other colleagues outside the university in a review of the research design, analysis, and reporting. Having impartial authorities (such as review panels, other experts in the area or an advisory committee) assess grant proposals and the quality of the research is an important mechanism to control potential bias in evaluative research. By disclosing the potential conflict of interest and introducing mechanisms to monitor and scrutinize the research and reporting, Dr. Donnelly and her university have reduced the potential for the pressure from sponsoring organizations to cloud their scientific objectivity. Many universities depend on outside sources of funds; however, disclosure and monitoring of the research by other scientists or review panels is the key to dealing with these types of conflicts of interest.

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