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Defining Public Interest Research

Public Interest Research

Defining Public Interest Research: A White Paper written for the Science and Environmental Health Network; The Center for Rural Affairs; and the Consortium for Sustainable Agriculture, Research and Education. 1999.

Carolyn Raffensperger, M.A., J.D. (SEHN)
Scott Peters, Ph.D. (Cornell University)
Fred Kirschenmann, Ph.D. (Kirschenmann Family Farms)
Ted Schettler, M.D., M.P.H. (SEHN)
Katherine Barrett (University of British Columbia)
Mary Hendrickson, Ph.D. (University of Missouri)
Dana Jackson (Land Stewardship Project)
Rick Voland (University of Wisconsin-Madison)
Kim Leval (Consortium for Sustainable Agriculture, Research & Education and the Center for Rural Affairs)
David Butcher (Midwest Sustainable Agriculture Working Group)

Defining Public Interest Research
It is in the interest of science, government agencies, and advocates for the public interest alike to develop a clear, coherent definition of "public interest research." When the connections among science, government, and the public interest are murky and inconsistent, both good science and the public interest suffer.

Yet neither government agencies, universities, nor nonprofit organizations have defined what constitutes research in the public interest. Agreeing on a definition is important. Science and technological advances may serve the common good, private profit, or both; but when public money is involved, the public has a right to expect that research it has funded will serve the public interest. Moreover, when private interests may result in public harm, it is the duty of public agencies to support public interest over private interests.

The authors of this paper - a diverse group of scientists, sustainable agriculture practitioners, environmentalists, health care providers, and others - propose the following working definition of public interest research, encompassing both ends and means:

Public interest research aims at developing knowledge and/or technology that increases the commonwealth. Such research requires complex problem-solving and will involve at least the economic, social, and environmental dimensions of people and natural resources. It will require that insights from these different ways of knowing be synthesized, and that an active citizenry be involved. (Peters, 1999)

Such research will be identified by its beneficiaries, the public availability of its results, and public involvement in the research. These key benchmarks identify public interest research:

  • The primary, direct beneficiaries are society as a whole or specific populations or entities unable to carry out research on their own behalf.
  • Information and technologies resulting from public interest research are made freely available (not proprietary or patented); and
  • Such information and technologies are developed withcollaboration or advice from an active citizenry.

"Public" means "not private." Most research done in the private interest is done for the financial gain of a limited, circumscribed group. Research done in the public interest will seldom involve such direct financial gain to the developers and will benefit a community or the commons.

The following questions may help clarify these three elements:

Identifying the beneficiary of the research:
Whose problem is being addressed? What new sources of economic and political power will emerge as a result? Who benefits from any scientific uncertainty surrounding the solution?

Making results freely available:
How are the data and results of publicly funded research kept in the public domain? Are they made available through the internet, public libraries, journals, press releases for media stories? Who decides how such results are used?

Involving citizens in research:
Has an active citizenry been involved in or signed off on the research?

Finally, an important set of questions has to do with protecting the public from research that is not in the public interest: Will new problems be created by solving an old one? Who may be harmed as a result? Is science being used to delay or obfuscate action? Will the citizenry and natural resources be protected by precautionary measures, if results are uncertain?

Identifying the Beneficiaries
What problem is the research in question trying to address? Is it a public question, or does it address a private concern? If the latter, has public funding been used against the public interest?

The U.S. Department of Agriculture carried out research for Delta and Pineland Co. on genetically engineering seed to make it sterile in the second generation, thus forcing farmers to buy seed every year. This "Terminator Technology" did not address a public question. Instead, it addressed a question posed by a private corporation attempting to protect its investment.

Terminator, like much of today's research, is directed toward product development for purposes of global trade and economic development. Some segments of the public will benefit from such research indirectly as the balance of trade is enhanced and the gross national product expanded. Yet the principal, direct beneficiary is the corporation manufacturing and selling the product.

Use of public funds to support research in the private interest is questionable at best. In this case, the technology is demonstrably detrimental to a large segment of the public. Terminator technology thus falls outside the bounds of public interest research and should not have been publicly funded.

Contrast the research by J. Lewis and his colleagues at the Agricultural Research Service of the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, examining the systemic response of plants to predators. This research is likely to promote systems that perpetuate themselves in nature, enhancing ecosystem services and long-term environmental health. All of this is clearly in the larger public interest.

Research on global climate change, teen pregnancies, endocrine disruption, and worker health and safety are examples of questions that fall squarely in the public domain.

A research problem may be posed so that it either falls squarely in the public interest or veers away from it. For instance, preventing cancer is unquestionably in the public interest. However, curing cancer is a grayer area, since the primary beneficiaries are not only cancer sufferers but also drug companies who benefit financially from the research. Moreover, the cancer patients who benefit may be those who can afford to pay for the technology, and not the cancer population as a whole. If the research is publicly funded, the unequal distribution of both financial and health gains resulting from the research raises ethical questions.

The Terminator technology also illuminates the question of economic and political power. By engineering seed sterility and preventing farmers from saving seed, large corporations garner unprecedented power over the world's food supply. In contrast, research by Miguel Altieri on small-scale food systems keeps economic power at a local level, enhancing the ability of farmers to fit their farming practices into sustainable cultural and ecological niches. The former represents private interest; the latter represents public interest.

In developing the public policy agenda and allocating public funding, we believe that research that is clearly in the public interest should receive the highest priority.

The question of who benefits from scientific uncertainty surrounding the solution to a research question is a more subtle and very important way to identify the beneficiary of research. Agricultural, public health, and environmental questions have potentially large societal impacts but also are areas of significant scientific uncertainty. For example:

  • We do not know for certain whether global climate change will adversely affect the planet. But petroleum companies benefit from that uncertainty if it allows them to continue expanding their use of polluting technologies and to profit financially from those technologies.
  • We do not know for certain what health effects PVC toys laden with plasticizers will have on children who chew them. The toy industry benefits financially from the uncertainty so long as PVCs are not banned for such use.
  • Pesticide manufacturers benefit from the absence of conclusive proof that their products disrupt endocrine function in humans and wildlife.

In these cases, industries benefit from the failure of researchers to produce conclusive evidence of harm, in situations where absolute proof of harm is elusive. The public and the environment, meanwhile, bear the cost.

Keeping the Results in the Public Domain
The issue of who owns the results of publicly funded research is complex and a continuing matter for debate in the scientific community. Much of this research is carried out in universities, which many would consider to be appropriate custodians of the public domain. Most current practices are built around this assumption. For instance, many universities require a potential source of research funds to agree that the university and the researchers retain the right to make decisions about publication of results of research. Federal law requires that inventions resulting from federally funded projects must be disclosed to the university where the research was carried out. Researchers at some universities may be free to choose the fate of the invention.

But others argue that universities represent yet another form of private interest. As universities accept private funding it becomes increasingly difficult for them to uphold the public interest. Private interests set priorities that may not be in the public interest. Both private funding and government funding may come laden with secrecy requirements. Secrecy cuts off public debate both within the university and within the larger community about whether such research and its results serve the public interest.

Some would say that keeping information in the public domain does not rule out profit. The computer industry is experiencing the benefits of freely available programs and operating systems developed by volunteers. In some cases, companies continue to invest in systems they will not be able to own, and both the public and the company profit from the development this stimulates. But others wonder whether research that results in financial gain to universities, hospitals, and corporations qualifies as public interest research.

American agriculture and society as a whole have benefited from the freely available information coming from publicly funded experimental stations and universities. This has begun to change, however, as patent laws assign ownership to information developed at public expense. While the privilege of patenting genes and organisms encourages investment in research and marketing to exploit these technologies, it also directs public money to private gain.

When public funds have supported any aspect of research, it is difficult to reconcile the issuing of patents and the sealing off of proprietary information with the public interest.

Involving the Public
Public interest research is characterised by "extended peer" communities, that is, it reaches beyond traditional narrow fields of expertise in large part because public interest research is often multi-disciplinary and involves policy questions. Accordingly, scientists involved in public interest research have the opportunity to test their work against a wider public and a wider variety of knowledge. The tension that will inevitably result between experts and nonexperts can also be productive. Such collaboration can lead to more robust and cost-effective science. (Peters, 1999)

Members of the public have identified and helped define numerous problems, stimulating research carried out in the public interest. Laypeople can make important contributions to the research itself by offering observations, firsthand and over periods of time, about changes in an ecology or in public health. For example:

  • Schoolchildren in Minnesota were the first to observe widespread deformations in frogs in the area. This observation resulted in an international effort to understand the causes of those deformations.
  • Mothers in Woburn, Massachusetts, observed a horrifying increase in leukemia in their neighborhoods. In collaboration with scientists and physicians, they traced the cause to drinking water contamination.
  • Ordinary citizens first called Rachel Carson's attention to dying birds, leading to Carson's landmark discoveries linking DDT to numerous environmental consequences.

Protecting the Public
It is precisely because many results of apparently benign technological development cannot be foreseen that public involvement in research and the research agenda is so important. The public often serves as guinea pigs and victims of technological developments, even while supporting them with their tax dollars.

In technological advances, the solution sometimes becomes the problem. Although insecticides kill a target insect, they may also kill predators that previously kept pests in check. DDT, CFCs, the automobile, and atomic energy have all had unintended, serious, and expensive consequences. The technology of genetic engineering is rapidly changing the face of agriculture and medicine, but its potential social, environmental, or public health consequences have not been addressed. We have not successfully adopted scientific review practices that predict consequences of technologies that may have broad geographical and temporal impacts.

When a public entity or a "common" - the ozone layer, farmers, marine resources, public health - will be damaged by a solution to a research question, the research is the antithesis of public interest and should not be undertaken with public money. This is especially true when those adversely affected have no means of defending themselves.

In cases of scientific uncertainty - when a problem threatens great but as yet unproven or unprovable damage - it is imperative that the public, rather than private interests, receive the benefit of such doubt. Public interest research is grounded in the precautionary principle, which requires precautionary action in the face of scientific uncertainty and the likelihood of harm.

Current regulatory approaches emphasize avoiding false negatives - that is, they refrain from taking action until proof of harm is irrefutable. This gives the benefit of doubt to the proponent of a technology. But the public should not bear the responsibility for scientific uncertainty when a private interest is at stake.

Unfortunately, industry often uses science and the elusiveness of scientific proof to stop preventive action. For example, pesticide companies, in an effort to block regulation of organophosphates and carbamates under the Food Quality Protection Act, have initiated practices such as testing pesticides on humans in order to undermine EPA's safety factor. In the case of dioxin, EPA's peer review of one report has been going on for years with no resolution, thus preventing updated regulatory action.

It is not enough to couch a research agenda in slogans such as "feeding the world" or "national security." It is essential to adopt criteria whereby we can assess whether research will benefit the public and examine the consequences of that research. We recognize that there are many gray areas, particularly where the public may benefit from research despite inordinate financial gain on the part of a few. Those gray areas demand extra scrutiny, particularly when the public helps fund the research, and when the consequences are uncertain.


Parts of the preceding discussion were adapted from Scott Peters, Nicholas Jordan, and Gary Lemme, "Towards a Public Science," to be published in the 1999 issue of the Kettering Foundation's Higher Education Exchange.

Some questions were adapted from Neil Postman, "Staying Sane in a Technological Society," Lapis #7, 1998: 53-57.

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