How Science is Funded
Where the money comes from:
Most of the money to fund scientific research comes from the government (here in the US that is). These are agencies that are specifically set up for this purpose. The National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health are a couple examples. There are other agencies like the Department of Defense, Department of Energy, or the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that have other mandates but also provide funding to grants that result in information that may aid in that mandate. A famous example of this is the US military's funding of Walter Reed’s group who discovered that mosquitoes transmit Yellow Fever. The amount and length of funding is not consistent. To see a detailed breakdown of how the government is spending your money on research (if a little dated) click here.
Private groups also fund research. One of the most famous is the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation that provides grants in a wide variety of areas, many of which are focused on curbing overpopulation by education and limiting disease transmission. Many other private funding agencies are highly specific. If a fisherman notices that all the local fish are gone, they might put together a grant together with other fishermen to figure out when happened. An awesome and successful example of this targeted type of funding is the “ice bucket challenge” which called for people in the US donated to the ALS Association which put that money towards grants.
Companies also either hire scientists outright or provide grants to academic researchers. To be honest I know the least about this source of funding. In the academic world that I currently live in it is the least common source of funding by far. Mostly companies have research conducted for them. They have a pretty good idea of what they want to know and how to go about getting that information. Drug companies are a good example of this. They are developing new medications all the time and must comply with the FDA guidelines or their new medication will not be approved. This means they must have strict control of how the experiments are conducted.
How getting the money works:
Funding organizations create grants or fellowships. There is an application form which they create. The scientists complete the forms which almost always includes a section about the scientist (what they have done in the past, what resources are available to them ect) and a section about the research they would like to do if they are awarded the money. These applications can be very time consuming. Most of the time the research is not already laid out (it isn’t like applying for a job). It is more like writing their own job description. It might seem weird to do things this way unless one thinks about the knowledge base of the groups involved. Good scientists are up on all of the latest research in their field. The granters of the money don’t have the time to get into every little detail about all the different areas of research then design experiments that they would them have to find just the right person to conduct. Instead the scientists spend their days getting to know everything there is to know about their area of research. Once they know the limits of our knowledge on a particular topic, then they come up with what to do next. They write that next step proposal up (usually in just a few pages) then send it off to the different granting agencies. It is actually a lot like filling out all those applications to colleges.
What the money goes to:
There are different types of funding. Fellowships provide money for the scientist to live off of. No one can do research on an empty stomach. Scholarships pay for educational expenses; even older scientists need to be taught new techniques to keep up with the best practices. Grants are paying for the research itself. Scientific equipment is very expensive because it has to be precise and accurate over the course of multiple experiments. Grants can also be used to hire people to work in the lab or to pay for travel to present the data once all of the experiments have been completed.
How I am funded:
I personally have been awarded the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship through the program by the same name. This fellowship pays for my salary but not my research, think funding the scientists not the science. My research, what it actually costs to raise the mosquitoes and plants, extract DNA, and buy all of the equipment in the lab, is paid for by grants my advisor has been awarded. These are both government (ours and foreign) and private. For example, a lab mate of mine does research on a fly that lays its eggs in blackberries and raspberries. There is a group of farmers that fund her research on these flies.
Conflict of interest:
While it is true that some unethical scientists manufacture or alter their results in order to get behind the scenes kickbacks from companies, this is not very common because of the nature of funding. We apply for a grant, get paid, conduct the experiment, then publish our results. The funding agency does have control over how the money is spent (for example a grant may pay for a technician to be hired but not new equipment) but scientists do not answer to them when it comes to the data. The results of the experiments are published and the funding agency (along with any conflict of interest) is identified. It is not likely that a paper would be published unless these boxes were checked. In other words, we answer to the funding agency with receipts, but to our employer (university in my case) and the publishers, with the data.
How the research is funded can consciously or unconsciously alter how an experiment is designed or how the results are interpreted. Scientists are imperfect humans. Bias creeps in. There are complicated safe guards in place to catch these biases, but all scientific statements should be taken with skepticism. The reason scientific method works is because of the “Oh yeah? Prove it!” attitude of the public and other scientists. We publish our data and explain exactly how we conducted our experiments so that we as a society can be convinced or unconvinced by what they found. If a friend claimed that they went to a town and every person there was a red head, you might ask them to give you more evidence. If they said they drove through and the only three people they saw were red heads, you would likely not find that a very compelling story. If they said they saw 300 people you would likely be more convinced. We must treat scientific results the same way. Look at who did the research, where, who funded it, how it was conducted, and what other experts are saying about it.