Universities: the industry dimension
Some time ago I came across a website (I no longer recall the details) which was running what I thought was a particularly silly survey: it was asking its readers to ‘vote’ in an online poll whether universities should be more like corporations. It was silly in the sense that at that level of generality the question was completely meaningless: more like corporations in what sense? Some modern companies have adopted what we might call traditional academic values and methodologies; and I guess that understanding the ability of well-run companies to manage and maximise resources is something that wouldn’t necessarily harm us.
However, the relationship between universities and business organisations is an important issue and deserves both analysis and comment. It is important in two different ways: (i) is there anything we can learn from the corporate world? – and (ii) what kind of relationship should we have, or allow ourselves to have, with corporate partners?
For this post I shall focus on the second of these questions. I may come back to the first on another occasion, and I might just point out in passing that modern organisation theory applies an analysis to companies that could be helpful to academic institutions, whether they might want to adopt business insights or indeed avoid them. But that’s for another time.
But what about relationships with industry? Just over ten years ago the University of California at Berkeley caused some academic observers to raise their eyebrows when it announced a special relationship with the Swiss pharmaceutical company Novartis. The agreement was confined to agricultural biotechnology, and under its terms the company provided the university with $25 million of research funding, and in return it acquired rights in a share of the resulting discoveries. A number of concerns were expressed at the time, with some arguing that the deal created conflicts of interest and the possibility that academic integrity might be compromised by the industrial partner’s commercial interests. The arrangement came to an end in 2003, and was subsequently assessed by a team of outside experts. The resulting report was fairly critical. It found no ethical misconduct, but it questioned whether the arrangement had had any real impact on research output, and wondered whether the intellectual property aspects had been efficiently and fairly handled.
Whether the Berkeley/Novartis agreement was good or not so good, it is now a matter of general consensus at least amongst state agencies and government departments across the industrialised world that academic-industry links are to be welcomed. The major funding programmes of Science Foundation Ireland, for example, are based on the requirement to assemble university-industry collaborations, and in this country most of the high value research centres across more or less all of the universities have such collaborations in place. The major motivation for such relationships is that they may accelerate the commercialisation of discovery, as industry partners apply their skills in financing, developing and marketing products that are derived from the research. The risk, as some might see it, could be that the commercial imperatives applied by the industry partners may skew the research, or that the prominence given to these projects might crowd out the also necessary basic or blue skies research that should have a home in the universities.
There is little evidence to date that industry links have undermined university research, though the risks are always likely to be there to some extent and this requires strong ethics monitoring and a clear university research strategy (that goes beyond industry partnerships) to be in place. An external analysis of SFI and its funded programmes published in 2008 suggested that the industry dimension was positive and should be developed further.
It is probably also arguable that industry links should be developed, where appropriate, on the teaching side. DCU has from its establishment operated a work placement programme as part of all the university’s programmes of study that has had the effect of creating close links with the employers that take on our students, without giving our industry partners any direct influence over programme content or assessment.
Academic and intellectual integrity must always be at the heart of everything a university does; but being ‘networked’ has many benefits, not least that it allows a university to understand better what society’s needs are and how we can contribute to their resolution. Industry links are an important part of that mission.Explore posts in the same categories: higher education, university comment below, or link to this permanent URL from your own site.