Is industry funding of university research dangerous?

Last year in this blog I published a post in which I raised various questions about links between universities and industry, and in particular whether industry funding for university research can compromise academic integrity. I concluded that safeguards were necessary, but that the need for higher education to play a role in addressing society’s problems and needs suggested that academic/business partnerships could play an important and constructive role.

In the history of higher education this is a relatively new issue. It has become more significant largely for two reasons: first, the very rapid development of high value and expensive research (particularly in science and engineering) has brought in its wake pressure from governments for the funding to be shared between the taxpayer and those who could commercially exploit the research; and secondly, as industrial innovation increasingly depends on the development of intellectual property, companies have found it useful to seek partnerships with academics whose discoveries could form the basis for new patents. As I noted in the previous post, this kind of partnership gained profile with the agreement in 1998 between the University of California at Berkeley and the Swiss company Novartis on a research partnership in agricultural biotechnology. When this agreement was subsequently reviewed by external experts it was queried whether it had produced sufficient research benefits, and whether it had created risks for the university.

More recently some questions have been asked about the tendency for oil companies to fund research into alternative energy in universities. A study sponsored by the Center for American Progress has suggested that oil industry funding of university research in the United States has compromised academic freedom and has largely served to reinforce industry interests rather than open-minded discovery. The report makes some suggestions for a check list to accompany all such arrangements, such as guarantees of full academic autonomy and control over published output.

In the meantime, it must be borne in mind that industry partnerships are now at the heart of government research funding. For example, Science Foundation Ireland in its documentation has this to say about such partnerships:

‘SFI strongly encourages research collaboration between SFI funded scientists & engineers and industry. Such interactions can lead to SFI scientists & engineers becoming more informed about industrial priorities and research needs; and lead to industrial collaborators being informed about important new science and engineering research developments in Ireland.’

This statement is typical of the approach adopted by research funding agencies in a number of countries. But there has also been a section of the academic community that is suspicious this approach and feels it is compromising academic values and undermining the tradition of open-ended, ‘blue skies’ research.

It might be said that there are two issues – related but distinct – that come into play here. The first is the fear that as industry has specific commercial goals, it will want researchers to provide findings that back the company’s objectives or interests. If for example a company is developing a drug to treat a disease it will want the academic research to confirm that the drug has the desired effect, and may want to suppress research that does not come to that conclusion. This is a legitimate concern, and it is right for safeguards to be found and rigorously applied that protect academic integrity and prevent undue influence being used to secure pre-determined results.

The second issue is a more general dislike of academic discovery supporting private profit, no matter how carefully integrity is protected. There isn’t a ‘right’ answer to this, but it could be said that where the taxpayer invests strongly in research they may want to see a direct impact on economic growth, and where foreign direct investment is a major public policy objective academic research support may become compelling. To put it another way, the political reality may be that academic/industry partnerships have become an essential ingredient in public policy that universities will not be able to resist, even if they wanted to.

For myself, I have no problems with such partnerships, where they are carefully structured and monitored. I am not at all against blue skies research, and indeed I believe that it must always be an important component of higher education. But I do not believe it to be either realistic or right to suggest that academic resources cannot be harnessed directly to support economic development, nor do I believe industry/university research contracts to be inherently wrong, even where their outputs may produce industry profits. It is too late to return the academy to an ivory tower; but staying out in the world does not have to compromise ethical standards or integrity.

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5 Comments on “Is industry funding of university research dangerous?”

  1. Vincent Says:

    My fear is that Corporations view you as little more than an annex to themselves. One where whatever little tax they pay is recycled into the Universities to pay for research used by them. Or even worse, where the tax they pay doesn’t cover.
    If the University is removed to a distance, one where they totally owned the results and the application from same then I believe there may be clean hands. Otherwise the Uni’s become a cats-paw of business whether they like it or not. And with the active connivance of Government for in this they have measurability in their never ending quest for control.
    That you are attempting to catch up with goings on in the USA during the cold war may be lauded, but even during that time Stephanie Kwolek (kevlar) and many many others worked in house for the Corporations.

  2. Why would learning about the unknown be dangerous to a good education? If a company can’t figure it out; why not have students research it?

  3. copernicus Says:

    I think your observations are far too mpessimistic. Science and technology faculties need strong links with the industry.
    I strongly support the links having been associated with EC Framework programmes both as a reviewer of the proposals and as part of consortia of university and SMEs across Europe. Universities can very well handle those aspects of research where the commercial outcome for the companies concerned are unknown and the work can be safely continued with links with universities like the GSM research work done years ago by a consortia of Swedish companies and universities, the latter providing the expertise for focused investigations. In the UK, a few good examples: like the University of Warwick’s manufacturing group successfully linking wih industry,Smith -Kline with their links with universities in the area of life sciences.

    RGIT Engineering Department was once successful in links with Offshore Oil companies, which sadly it did not cement the links further although RGU these days has a more limited links of student placements in these companies.

  4. I think Industry research in Universities is vital, as it keeps academics very much in touch with what kinds of research society wants (and is willing to pay for). Of course there need to be safeguards to ensure the integrity and fairness of the process.
    We also need to consider that the research society wants is not the research society needs. Private companies exist for profit, and a blockbuster drug for, say, high blood pressure, that must be taken every day is a much more interesting prospect to them than a one pill cure for a disease of the poor. I have no problem with that, they are not charities, and do great good. But a key role for the state is to ensure that research into things society needs, but which cannot be sold at a profit (see, again, treatments for unfashionable diseases of the poor) get’s done. The danger of industry funding of University research is if we think it should cover everything, especially in the sciences.

  5. ookwudili Says:

    Acknowledging how easy it may be for certain groups to exploit and established secular charities, organisations or public limited concerns you might want to focus efforts on existing independent regulatory bodies, who are able to better vet individual abilities for application for research sponsorship. One of which is ‘jeRCUK’ with provision and active assistance in the formulation of proposals to a list of funder’s on their databases, which is reviewed by a panel of experts prior to final presentation. Although the pre-requisites for eligibility are rigorous – requiring a long established knowledge of the research field (5+ years, plus notoriety through published work and collaboration with professionals / experts), as posted;

    Sourced from:

    Click to access eligibilitystatement.pdf

    October 2006, Revised July 2009

    Second revision October 2010

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