(Written for Inside Higher Ed, April 2020)
Would you take “dirty” money to fund your research?
In the late eighteenth century, the Spanish attempted to commit genocide on the Karankawa Indians of the Texas Gulf Coast. I had located the evidence—I just needed to travel and see the documents first-hand. Housed hundreds of miles away, I could not afford a trip to the appropriate archive.
Then a friend informed me of an organization loaded with cash, a honey hole funding projects left and right, but there was a catch. This organization held political positions vastly contradictory to my own. Specifically, they financed climate change deniers and they fought against advancements in health care.
I faced a conundrum. Do I take money from an unseemly institution to do significant historical work, or do I patiently wait to secure funding from a source I consider less sordid?
I made my decision: I applied for the grant.
Generally, graduate students desperately need money. When financial assistance is dangled before our eyes, overlooking the money trail comes easily. This piece examines such implications and the morality of accepting funds from organizations that have beliefs antithetical to our own.
My grant application failed. I requested too much money and did too little to tailor my proposal. To feel better about my flop, I brainstormed how winning the fellowship might have negatively impacted my academic reputation.
First, by accepting cash from a “sordid” establishment, that institution’s views could come to represent my own. In other words, if I took money from an organization that denies climate change, some individuals may think that I too am a climate-change denier. This is especially problematic considering that I work closely with Native Americans, who are generally against corporations despoiling the environment. If First Peoples learned that a controversial establishment funded my research, they might refuse to interview with me. That would, in effect, cripple my scholarship.
You could avoid this problem if you refused to disclose an unseemly fellowship on your CV—in essence, keep your grant a secret. But this will not stop the granting institution from claiming your work as part of their own initiatives. Grants are transactions. Institutions that provide monetary allotments are looking to acquire something. And usually, that means using your reputation and your work to improve their social standing.
With all this in mind, would I apply again?
Absolutely. While there could be a handful of potentially harmful side effects, they are, in my opinion, worth the risk. My work exposes an attempted genocide. It shows the resilience of the Karankawa Indians. That’s significant. Moreover, the majority of those I work with know where I stand on divisive political issues.
More broadly, I believe that graduate students literally cannot afford to be picky where they acquire funding. That’s the reality we live in, and it’s a sad reality.
My views are not universal. To acquire different perspectives for this article, I posed a handful of colleagues at Southern Methodist University with my moral quandary: would you take “dirty” money to fund your research? To my surprise, I received analogous answers (granted, five people is not the largest survey pool).
“It is hard to get through academia without being the beneficiary of ‘tainted’ money,” responded Ashton Reynolds, a Ph.D. student studying American religious history, “if you are at an R1 university in Texas, you benefit from oil money.” Reynolds further pointed out that a myriad of prestigious awards are named after those who, when making their fortunes, “were exploitative of their workers and ruthless to their competitors.”
Christoper Walton, another historian of religion, saw association with “controversial” institutions as a possible positive, “One of the purposes of scholarship is to interact with other viewpoints and to seek out the best option.” Walton continued by saying that, ultimately, “you are submitting a proposal and getting paid for a specific task. Your responsibility is the ethical appropriateness of your project: you are not responsible for the institution as a whole. Are you being honest about the goods/services you are providing? Then, no worries.”
Film and gender historian Skye Cranney, reiterated my first worry, “If said organization is a well-known alt-right climate change denier/anti-vaxxer, and I was going into a fairly liberal-leaning field, it might not look so great.” Nevertheless, Cranney said she would take the funding: “money is money, after all. Plus it’s kind of fun to take alt-right funding and use it to do the opposite of what they want.”
When it comes down to it, this is a personal decision. We are all going to have our own answers. I made my decision—would you make the same one?
As a caveat, I am approaching this question from the standpoint of a scholar in the humanities. In other fields such as biotech, the stakes can be considerably higher, and my “fervent” would not be so straightforward.