Hired Guns

“Don’t bite the hand that feeds you.” We all know the phrase, and one area in which it is particularly important is academia.

In particular, most academics who write research in support of the H-1B work visa do receive funding from the industry and its allies.  Yet many will claim that the funding doesn’t impact the content of their work.

For example, my UC Davis colleague, economist Giovanni Peri, specializes in H-1B and immigration issues in general, and has become one of the nation’s top researchers on the “pro-” side of these issues. He does interesting work, but he too receives funding from the pro- side, as noted in an article earlier this year in The Atlantic (emphasis added):

Many of the immigration scholars regularly cited in the press have worked for, or received funding from, pro-immigration businesses and associations. Consider, for instance, Giovanni Peri, an economist at UC Davis whose name pops up a lot in liberal commentary on the virtues of immigration. A 2015 New York Times Magazine essay titled “Debunking the Myth of the Job-Stealing Immigrant” declared that Peri, whom it called the “leading scholar” on how nations respond to immigration, had “shown that immigrants tend to complement—rather than compete against—the existing work force.” Peri is indeed a respected scholar. But Microsoft has funded some of his research into high-skilled immigration. And New American Economy paid to help him turn his research into a 2014 policy paper decrying limitations on the H-1B visa program. Such grants are more likely the result of his scholarship than their cause. Still, the prevalence of corporate funding can subtly influence which questions economists ask, and which ones they don’t. (Peri says grants like those from Microsoft and New American Economy are neither large nor crucial to his work, and that “they don’t determine … the direction of my academic research.”)

An article in Friday’s edition of the Gainesville Press reports,

A University of Florida professor, who has been a longtime defender of genetically modified foods, has sued the New York Times and one of its reporters for libel.

Kevin Folta, UF’s horticultural sciences chairman, filed a lawsuit against reporter Eric Lipton and the New York Times in September over a 2015 article he says unfairly portrayed him as a “covertly paid operative” for Monsanto, a company that produces genetically modified crops.

The lawsuit states the article falsely alleged Folta received “unrestricted grants” for research from Monsanto in exchange for his public support for GMOs, or genetically modified organisms, as one of several academics “recruited” to “advance Monsanto’s corporate goals instead of presenting legitimate, objective scientific results.”

Inside Higher Ed adds, echoing Peri,

Folta, who believes in the ability of genetically modified organisms to help meet global food demands, has said he accepted funds from Monsanto to hold science communication seminars but that the funds had no bearing on his scientific conclusions…

But these claims are clearly invalid. If one takes money from a given source and wants to continue receiving the funds, one cannot do work antagonizing the source. It’s that simple.

I don’t know anything on the University of Florida case, but the researcher’s claim that the money “had no bearing on [my] scientific conclusions” are disingenuous. He may well independently believe in the safety of GMOs, but funding like that could put a damper on whatever negative findings pop up in his work


15 thoughts on “Hired Guns

  1. The issue of corporate influence is huge and it’s complicated. Medical and scientific researchers sometimes are attacked unfairly, in my view.

    In economics and policy, where opinion can masquerade as research, a particular pernicious mechanism is where the corporation organizes conferences stacked with certain views and then invites government officials, who aren’t aware they’re attending what is effectively a corporate presentation. Economists seem particularly amenable to these events.

    Some of the big tech firms are also very clever at offering “internships” and grants to young journalists and academics who then think they have special understanding of the issues that affect those corporations.


  2. I’ll say it as you left it somewhat hanging:
    So The New York Times believes conflicted funding impeaches the source when it comes to genetically modified foods, but doesn’t impeach the “leading scholar” when it comes to immigration economics – what hypocrites !


  3. “If one takes money from a given source and wants to continue receiving the funds, one cannot do work antagonizing the source.”

    Well, we’ll see.

    I’ve frequently noted that at the start of each episode of the rspected PBS science series “Nova” one of the funders always credited is, basically, the Koch brothers. And yet the most recent episode of PBS’s respected investigative journalism program “Frontline” rather seriously slamed the Koch brothers for their relationship with and support for new EPA administrator Scott Pruitt.

    I doubt they will be amused. Might they pull their funding for Nova? i guess we’ll just have to wait and see.


    • The Koch brothers may be notorious for their political activities, but one has to admit that their mainstream philanthropic funding, notably to medical research, as been quite generous. Maybe PBS has an understanding with them. Or maybe this one just slipped through.


  4. Pardon me for laughing, but my term for an academic who takes ANY money from any side of an issue he/she’s studying is “lobbyist”. Unfortunately, this is a bit of self-delusion we would prefer academics not have, and it does undermine the validity of their research. My understanding of the scientific method is that a researcher proposes a hypothesis (based on initial evidence), designs an experiment to test the hypotheses, does the experiment and draws conclusions as to whether or not the experiment supports the hypotheses. What we end up with is a theory that has experimental support, until the next experiment that doesn’t. In the hard sciences it takes years for broadly accepted theories to develop. Human perception and conceptual limitations make it a difficult process. In social sciences the problem is compounded by the complexity of the subject and the unrealized biases of the researcher. If you throw in money, any claim of objectivity sounds absurd. The first thing a researcher should do is to remove the taint of financial influence if they want to be taken seriously. This does leave open the question of how researchers can get funding to do good work. Maybe Norm can shed some light on this.


    • The real question is how much should research be funded. I am not referring to the quality of the research, but rather the fact that (a) researchers should take a more active role and (b) grad students should be funded more by TAships and the like, rather than expecting special funding for the research.


  5. MafiaSoft has a long and storied history of using “influencers” (paid shills in key posts at magazines, news outlets, etc.) to push their side of the story. They did this for years in their relentless battle to remove all competitors to their insipid, convoluted “Windows” software franchise. Similarly, we see the same pattern when Gates began pushing for Common Core – aligned testing and textbook criteria for schools. Anytime MafiaSoft is involved, follow the money, just like any other politically-connected organization.


  6. > “Don’t bite the hand that feeds you.” We all know the phrase, and one area in which it is particularly important is academia.

    I also like the phrase “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it”. I think that underlines the point that bias is not always conscious. Any good researcher knows that he/she must guard against all mistakes and biases, conscious or subconscious. One of the best ways to do that is to make your research results as easily reproducible as possible, especially by researchers who are most likely to disagree with the results. Unfortunately, that seems to be very rare in research in most disciplines.

    Regarding the work of Giovanni Peri, I have posted a partial reproduction of one of his recent studies at http://econdataus.com/jole_pss.htm . Like most research papers, it does not provide enough information to make the results easily reproducible. Still, I was able to find a couple of definite problems. One is an apparent typo which dropped the minus sign of the correct number -5.17 (see the number in the upper right of Table 6 at http://kevinyshih.weebly.com/uploads/5/5/8/7/5587146/kevin_y_shih_2013_foreign_stem_workers_h1b_visas_and_productivity_in_us_cities_oct_3_2013.pdf ), changing it to 5.17 (see the number in the upper right of Table 5 at http://giovanniperi.ucdavis.edu/uploads/5/6/8/2/56826033/stem-workers.pdf ). This error is in favor of the paper’s general conclusions. The more serious problem is that the study combines time-spans of different length without making any adjustment for that difference in length. Specifically, it compares the rate of change during 1990-2000, 2000-2005, and 2005-2010 without making any adjustment for their difference in length.

    I pursued this just enough to find that nobody is really interested in these errors unless you can show definite proof that their correction would seriously change the conclusions of the paper. Even then, there is no guarantee that a journal would publish it. Finally, I know of no organization that is funding the reproduction of studies. It is therefore not surprising that it’s very rare for anyone to take the effort to reproduce these studies. Most of the activity is around the hands that are feeding people, so to speak.


  7. The sad thing is that these “hired guns” can be defeated with two tables of data:
    1. Nonfarm jobs
    2. population

    The solution is very simple, which is to put about a half page ad in the top 100 newspapers in America using the data listed above, showing the lack of jobs created since we began writing Free Trade Agreements and we began the massive tidal wave of young non-immigrant guest workers.

    If I were a “hired gun” writing for organizations like FWD.us, I could make a pretty good living.

    But to find a wealthy donor who believes in opportunity in America for American Citizens and legal immigrants alike, I have a better chance of winning the lottery.

    And to get 1 million displaced American STEM workers to put up a measly twenty dollars each is impossible.

    Which is why nobody questions these hired guns propaganda.

    But I continue to try simply because I do believe in opportunity.

    As time allows, I will have a new website focusing only on this message if you would care to follow my work or want to contribute to my work.


    Keep America At Work
    H-1B Hunting Licenses
    American Made Software


      • thanks norm, I have written everybody, including gates and I even told him that I heard a rumor that he believes in a fair fight and I slapped him across the face like the duel’s of yesteryear. (via email of course, assuming he actually reads the email address I was given)

        Apparently if you do not belong to the right clique, you are a nobody and your ideas are not worth listening too.

        Nobody seems to believe the old fable of david vs goliath.
        They all seem to believe that they can do everything through the internet.

        Folks, 30% of americans in america are well educated, and use the internet, BUT ONLY to search things they are interested in, or that they have been impacted by.

        70% of americans will come to your aid when they realize that their granddaughter that they are paying to go to college will end up living in their basement simply because we have sent all jobs offshore or imported non-immigrant guest workers to take their jobs.

        This IS YOUR AUDIENCE.

        These are the ones that will end this triangle shirtwaist factory fire.

        This is who we must reach which means printed and televised media, not to mention radio as well.


  8. The global warming/climate change agenda has been pushed using this tactic for over three decades. Wall St. employs and sponsors all kinds of events and papers that support this agenda. With the intention of increasing the derivatives markets for carbon credits, weather, etc. If you look at the incomes of the PHDs that support the agenda, you will find all kinds of summer employment, grants, speaking engagement fees, etc., tied to groups that benefit from the positive “research.”


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