Engine Room column: Ethics and grants

What is ethical and fair in academic or artistic practices of foundation grantees? What should a researcher or an artist funded by a foundation do when they encounter ethical problems? Where is the line between the funder and the research or art organization when problems arise, or between ethical misdemeanours and criminal activity? Kalle Korhonen, Kone Foundation's Director or Research Funding, writes about the ethical perspectives of grant work.
Illustration: Marika Maijala

First of all, one may always ask whether the foundation itself is fair in allocating money to researchers and artists on the basis of peer review, and does not, for example, distribute an equal amount of funding to everyone. In my view, the foundation operates ethically. Otherwise, it would be difficult to do this work. We require that academics and artists funded by the foundation also act ethically.

Secondly, it should be noted that if members in a project funded by Kone Foundation or by any foundation act criminally, it is no longer up to the funder to investigate, but to the police.

Ethical problems are, in my opinion, rare in scientific and artistic work. However, they occur because academic research and art involve competition, steep hierarchies, and clear power relations. On the other hand, they occur because academic research and art involve low hierarchies and unclear power relations. Ethical problems occur because humans work with other humans.

Ethical problems in academic and artistic work can roughly be divided into two types: problems in research ethics (and artistic ethics), and practical ethical problems.

The most serious and probably the best-known problems in research ethics are related to the treatment of research subjects, be they humans, human communities, or other biological species. The range of potential research ethical issues is wide, as tools developed in science can be used to destroy people or ecosystems, or to manipulate people. The cruelties of the Nazis and other abuses of science led the scientific community in the second half of the 20th century to regulate the ethics of research. Ethical perspectives on research change over time, as do other moral perceptions. This is reflected, for example, in attitudes towards animal testing.

Perceptions of the ethics of gathering data are also changing. From the 19th until the 20th century, a scholar in humanities could collect their research material from indigenous or minority language speakers and publish it to the academic community, without taking into account the community where the research had taken place. Gradually, the perspective of research has changed so that research has begun to be done, first, for the benefit of the studied community, and later, with its participation.

I wrote about the ethics of data gathering in this blog in the fall of 2019, and stated that currently a linguistic research project that leaves nothing to the studied community is not considered ethically acceptable. It is now even more important than before that the research is strongly attached to a researcher community, which may then be part of the studied community, or at least have a strong connection to the studied community. Otherwise, the researcher may soon find out that they do not know what the correct and fair practices are in that particular field of research.

Ethical problems in research or art can also arise when someone uses the ideas or work of another or presents it as their own. In the case of scientific fraud, research organizations have clear processes for resolving such disputes. More information about such processes can be obtained from your own university or the Finnish National Board on Research Integrity.

If Kone Foundation is notified of a possible violation of research ethics, the matter must first be investigated by the relevant research organization. The foundation committed to the RCR guidelines in 2020, because problems in research ethics can nowadays arise elsewhere, too, not only in institutions. We do not want to be outside of research ethical practices.

Controversies like allegations of scientific fraud are often symptoms of a more general ethical conflict. If personal relations in a project are good, there is rarely a dispute over who has put forward the original ideas or done the work. If a dispute arises, more general ethical guidance can be found in the institution’s code of conduct. Research organizations have recently started to publish codes of conduct on their websites (for example, Aalto University), and researchers should follow the instructions. Codes of conduct also address injustices such as racism or other discrimination.

Sometimes there is disagreement in a research group or art project about what has been agreed in the beginning. Funding can have been used for purposes other than those agreed upon or notified to the funder. It is the funder’s business, too, if the funding is used for something other than what was stated in the plan when the application was made. However, the foundation can decide whether it places more emphasis on supporting or monitoring the projects it funds.

Artists supported by the foundation do not usually do their work within an institution, but many work alone or in small groups. In addition, art has its own ethical problems, some of which are less common on the scientific side. For example, a work of art may be considered an insult to a person’s honour or privacy. Harassment may occur when practicing or presenting a performance. Guidelines have been drawn up in Finland in various fields of art, for instance in the fields of dance and circus and film and television. However, such guidelines alone are no longer considered sufficient: in fact, it has been proposed that a state body be established to deal with ethical issues in art and culture.

At Kone Foundation, we have recently clarified the guidelines for the leaders of projects funded by the foundation. We emphasize that the leader must guarantee fair and ethical behaviour in the projects. Project leaders will also be offered training in our “Best practices” webinar series that began this spring. We believe that this can reduce ethical problems in advance.


Kalle Korhonen

The author is Kone Foundation's Director or Research Funding.