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by Curtis Phillips | April 10, 2013 | 7:03 AM

These days one has to assume that most research is privately funded. In a recent post on Palate Press, Erika Szymanski looks at the question of privately funded research through the lens of Nomacorc's "Oxygen and Wine Quality: Turning Advanced Wine Oxygen Management Research into Practical Solutions."

Even though I think Szymanski's analysis of privately funded wine research is mostly correct, I would have highlighted the issue of publication rights, intellectual capital and the freedom of scientific ideas more. Her most important point was saved for the concluding sentence. In journalism, we call that burying the lead.

Sure the Federal and State governments make some grants for basic and applied research. But even those project generally receive some supplementary private funding. For the UC and CSU systems, the State pays the faculty and staff salaries and maintains the buildings, and that is about it. Outside research grants are needed to fund almost all research in the UC and CSU systems. That is the way it has been for decades. Certainly, back almost thirty years ago when I was a lowly research assistant at UC Davis, all the professors for which I worked spent a significant chunk of their time writing grant proposals for research projects.

Disclosure is good, but it is not enough. The disclosure of makes it easier for laymen to try to "follow the money", but the real issue is freedom of publication. To praise Nomocorc for disclosing their research funding is to praise them for something that is a common practice. It is much more laudable that the publication rights for research funded by Nomacorc is retained by the academic institutions conducting the research. I don't know for sure, but I suspect that the University of California simply doesn't give private funders the option to retain publication rights, but Nomacorc could have taken the project somewhere that did.

Philosophically, I think Szymanski understates the role of replicating published research. True it's not very interesting if all one demonstrates is that someone else's prior experiment was valid, and as such the confirming results will usually remain unpublished, but this is, in fact, the usual starting point for most research. In the rare case, academic careers have been made by demonstrating that the findings of previously published research were incorrect or misinterpreted.

At a simply practical level, validating some bit of published research is a good way for an academic researcher to evaluate a new grad-student or post-doc or to refine an analytical procedure. The first "real" research I did as an RA was to replicate an analysis on grape tissue that had been published as having been done on tomato plants. It wasn't any surprise that we got similar results, but it did validate the procedure for us and allow us to carry the project forward.

Another minor quibble is that for most academic institutions research funding, private or public, doesn't in fact "pay the salary" of a full-time faculty member like Andrew Waterhouse. It might pay all or part of the salary of the grad-student or post-doctorate researcher working for him, but faculty and staff salaries are generally paid by the institution.

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