In a letter dated 28 November 1968 written to Edward Barrett, then Dean of the Columbia University School of Journalism, Ronald Coase responded to the claim that perhaps his research on the FCC was impacted by a conflict of interest. He first pointed out that he had not conflict of interest at all as he was not paid by any of the interested parties for his research. But he then added:
I should perhaps add that I do not regard the general point at issue [conflict of interest] as having as much importance as you (and people generally) attach to it. In a debate it is the arguments that should matter rather than the motives which lead the parties to put them forward. I recognize that monetary interest may lead to bias. But the number of falsehoods put into circulation for the sake of money must be small compared with the number put forward ‘to serve the public interest’.
Kyle O'Donnell and I talk about this in a paper dealing with "The Social Responsibility of Economists." Our paper will be part of a volume dealing with this issue that was motivated by the claims that economists suffered from a conflict of interest that led to the financial crisis. In fact, a lot of discourse about economics these days, and in fact science in general, is concerned about these conflicts of interest. Though I will not go into this in the depth it deserves, but the current discourse I think misses Coase's point raised in his response to Barrett, and it also misses the critical point that makes Coase's point true --- the rules of science as Thomas Leonard has written about.
Rather than getting a constitutional political economy discussion of science, we are getting a naive public choice rendering at best, and a downright conspiracy theory at worst. In much of this we get normative theorizing parading as a positive analysis of influence peddling and scientific distortions caused by monied interests.
Eric Lipton recently wrote an investigative journalist piece in the NYT on what he saw as the effort by foreign powers to buy influence in Washington DC via donations to "think tanks". This was then followed up by a discussion on NPR dealing with the unwanted influence of foreign powers and corporations on think-tank "research" in Washington, and the use of academics to provide cover for the shenanigans. Only one commentator on the NPR show mentioned competition among the groups serving to cancel out the distortions, and none mentioned the importance of the rules governing scientific discourse that enable the contestation of ideas such that weak arguments are constantly tested against stronger arguments in the marketplace of ideas.
Which brings me to the phrase "marketplace of ideas". It is now fashionable to read into this phraseology something more sinister than simply the tug and pull of competition in scientific explanation or scholarly investigation. Phil Mirowski published recently Science-Mart, which attempts to show that the philosophy of neoliberalism has creeped into the scientific process and distorted it through funding by foundations and more importantly corporations. Mirowski isn't just talking about social science, but science in general. Though his disciplinary base is in economics, and he certainly doesn't space economics from some of his strongest indictments -- especially in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. See his book Never Let a Serious Crisis Go to Waste. Also see his recent talk at the Re-Thinking Economics conference in NYC on the state of the discipline.
While consipiracy stories are more entertaining than stories merely about intellectual disagreement, they may in fact not be at all true. As I have tried to remind my students (both undergraduate and gradaute), public choice analysis is not conspiracy theory. Applied to science, as Leonard points out in his article above, the critical issue is to explan a theory of scientific success from a realistic theory of scientific motivation, and that can only be done by examining the institutions of science. Conspiracy theories of science focus on the motivations of scientists, but don't pay sufficient attention to how the institutions of science cultivate a culture of criticism; of constant contestation; of competition with prestigious awards for the winners and crushing defeats for the losers; and as a result steer the process of scientific discovery and advancement of knowledge. Bill Butos and I, many years ago now, published a paper arguing that science is indeed a marketplace of ideas, and that rather than bemoan the changes in funding since 1980 as Mirowski does, scientists and scholars should welcome them. Make science even more of a true marketplace of ideas, and you will get better science.
Critical to understanding how science improves our lives, though, is the transformation of technical knowledge into commercially useful knowledge, as Joel Mokyr has written about in his works The Levers of Riches, The Gifts of Athena, and The Enlightened Economy.
So is science bought and sold? --- I sure hope so! Does that screw up science? --- Read what Coase says above, in the comparative institutional analysis it will screw it up a lot less than it has been screwed up by those that claim to do science in the public interest.