Recently, the New York Times reported that a researcher at The New America Foundation was pushed out along with his team after a major funder – Google – put pressure on the group’s leadership. The Open Markets Initiative at New America was run by Barry Lynn, the researcher in question, who had become increasingly critical of Google and its monopoly power. Lynn’s firing has raised questions about the independence of think tanks from their corporate donors, and about the growing rift between Silicon Valley and the progressive movement.
The scandal also comes at a time when funding for research is under intense budgetary pressure, and has been losing ground to inflation for nearly a decade. Federal funding for research has been frozen since 2008, effectively cutting the resources available to universities where the majority of research is conducted. Making matters worse, Trump’s proposed budget slashes billions of dollars from the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation, to say nothing of the cuts to the National Endowment for the Humanities or National Endowment for the Arts.
This is, of course, in addition to cuts in state funding for universities, forcing public colleges to transition away from tenure track professorships and towards adjunct instructors. Not only does this make the institution reliant on a teaching staff that is underpaid and fraught with employment insecurity, it also deprives academics of the stability and support needed to conduct research.
And it’s into this vacuum that corporations have entered, directing millions of dollars towards think tanks with strings attached. In addition to the corporations themselves, their billionaire owners have also used their largess to direct the research that shapes public policy. Education policy, for example. has been dominated by research funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Initiatives funded by the Gates have helped drive the push to shift public school funding towards vouchers and strip teachers of union protections.
Whether you agree with a given think tank’s positions or not, researchers should be able to pursue their academic and policy interests independently. The events at New America show us that corporate giants and billionaires don’t see their donations as purely charitable – they expect to get something for their money. That makes it even more important for Congress to provide robust funding for research and state governments to increase support for universities. The independence that a university provides can allow academics to evaluate the claims made by think tanks, and pursue topics that either wouldn’t attract corporate support, or would garner opposition from entrenched interests.
That Lynn was a critic of monopoly power only underscores the importance of independent academic expertise. Google itself has been a critic of monopolies in the recent past, when they joined companies like Netflix and Facebook to support net neutrality. Their argument made perfect sense: established companies should not be able to use their power to crowd out new entrants and prevent competition. Without the free and open internet that made those three tech companies possible, we’d be forced to use Comcast Search and The Comcast Social Network. More likely, these innovations wouldn’t have happened at all, with competition and the incentive to innovate crushed.
It was the work of researchers at places like the Electronic Frontier Foundation and The New America Foundation that crafted the argument in favor of net neutrality. But we cannot rely on the benevolence of multinational corporations and expect them to be on the right side of every fight.
Incumbents use their power to secure their position. Google doesn’t want to give up it’s monopoly on search. Facebook will continue to acquire tech companies until every piece of online content is brought to you by Mark Zuckerberg. Amazon wants to shoot avocados at you from a Whole Foods drone as soon as Alexa hears you say guacamole. This is a problem as old as capitalism itself, but we can only understand it – and the other myriad issues our society must confront – if we have independent experts we can turn to for analysis and solutions. If the public sector doesn’t ensure that researchers are independent, the private sector will ensure that they’re not.
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