Those of us who work in Universities are faced with the on-going challenges of attracting research funding, publishing, and demonstrating that our research has impact outside of academia. Which in some ways makes a lot of sense; public funds should be utilised in purposeful ways. There is little point in entrenching ourselves in esoteric debates only of interest to a handful of like-minded colleagues. There are many challenging social issues that research might help to address.
However, there is long-recognised risk that we lose sight of the many attributes of independent research and thinking. Chomsky articulated these as: ‘fostering creative and independent thought and inquiry, challenging perceived beliefs, exploring new horizons and forgetting external constraints.’ He even argued that the extent to which these are ‘realized is a good measure of the level of civilization achieved.’
Pursuing external funding is an expectation now, but it might come with certain costs; the result of meeting the aims of the funder, which may well contradict the orthodox aims of open-minded, objective inquiry.
The scope and scale of research into anti-doping has dramatically increased over the past 20 years, coinciding with the creation of the World Anti-Doping Agency in 1999. Ostensibly, we are in a fruitful period where policy and research have a potentially beneficial relationship. WADA, the IOC, and other organisations like The Partnership for Clean Competition (PCC), have dedicated research funding schemes offering scholars the opportunity for attracting much-needed resource, publishing findings and impacting upon policies that have lofty ambitions: clean sport, health and the ethical virtues inherent in fair play.
Anti-doping research: using funding to shape knowledge
Any scientist hoping to work in this field needs to relate their research to the purpose of anti-doping.
The PCC defines their objectives as:
‘Every day, the PCC acts to protect the integrity of sport and public health by engaging and supporting the world’s top scientists and innovators in high-quality anti-doping research and development. The PCC also facilitates adoption of these methods into the WADA-accredited laboratories. We aspire to help generate the world’s most influential, effective and coveted methods and resources for detecting and deterring the use of performance enhancing substances by all athletes in all sports at all levels. Through this work, we demonstrate the value of science, collaboration and innovation related to doping control in sport and ensure the benefits of sport participation.’They provide annual funding of over $2m.
WADA are another significant funder of scientific research; since it was formed, it has committed $65m to finding the best scientific solutions to anti-doping problems. Much like the PCC, the aim is to develop ‘new and improved detection methods for prohibited substances and methods.’
As an indication of the growing relationship between WADA and the scientific community, its President has been fund-raising from international organisations and developed a stronger relationship with the IOC. Last year, it was announced that the IOC would contribute $10m, and WADA had secured pledges of $6.45m.
The IOC describe their aims as: ‘The priority is then innovative and novel research in all areas of anti-doping, which have the potential to lead to a significant change in the way anti-doping programmes are carried out and will have a direct impact on the daily life of the clean athlete.’
By prescribing the type of research they will fund, these organisations have structured the global environment for research.
Important research outside this remit
It may be understandable that a large, wealthy organisation seeks supporting evidence to enhance its own goals. In this instance, those goals are supported by Governments, sports organisations, athletes (in the main), and the watching public. However, behind the image of clean sport lies a lot of potentially interesting and valuable issues for which scientists would struggle to get funding.
For example, research on the nature of the drugs that are banned: do they enhance performance?; are they a risk to health, and at what specific dosage levels? That sort of information might lead to a reconsideration of the Prohibited List, which is not in the interests of the PCC, WADA or IOC.
Critical work that looks at potential flaws in the current system would not get funded. There have been concerns expressed by independent researchers about false positives, false negatives, sanctions based on competing interpretation of laboratory data, and the efficacy of the Athlete Biological Passport (the longitudinal blood profiling method that does not detect drug use, but instead highlights changes to blood values).
In the social sciences, it is hard to get funding for projects that critically assess the policy as defined by the World Anti-Doping Code. That is not within the interests of any anti-doping agency. Arguably, important and strong projects could be funded by other agencies, such as those interested in public health. This would be a high risk strategy given the competitive nature of health funding, and without the support of sports organisations would look light on potential impact. Yet there is a need to understand the negative consequences of anti-doping.
By offering lucrative but narrowly defined opportunities, anti-doping funders draw talented and committed researchers towards a specific policy goal, distracting them from more critical or broader approaches. This risks the loss of objectivity, creativity, cross-disciplinary learning, and innovation. If research is driven by policy aims then it can only work in the interests of reinforcing the nature of that policy. Critics are outside of the system, marginalised and under-funded. This sucks the life out of the debate on the ethics of anti-doping, as there are very few opportunities for meaningful engagement between policy leaders and ‘detached’ academics.