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.