30Dec2012

The Dangers of Mixing Business and Scientific Research.

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In today’s tough economic times, finding the means for robust scientific research is harder than ever. Guest writer Emma Collins describes some of the resources and help available.

Some initiatives, like the recently profiled Andromeda Project, can be fueled by volunteer hours — but many more complex endeavors require full-time, hands-on expertise. This article takes a look at the university penchant towards private funding, with an emphasis on some of the potential downsides when it comes to research integrity.

At a time when budget cuts are leading to marked decreases in federal funding, corporate investors have proven eager to invest millions in university research. In 1965, the federal government financed more than 60% of all research and development in the US. Yet, by 2006, 65% of R&D was funded by private interests. A study by the Association of University Technology Managers found that 7% of all university research budgets, or about $3 billion, came from industry sources in 2005. At UC Berkeley, for instance,  taxpayer-funded federal grants comprised 56% of the school’s research budget in 2007, the smallest percentage on record.

Meanwhile, a 2006 investigation found that one-third of Stanford University’s medical school administrators and departments heads have reported financial conflicts of interest related to their own research, including stock options, consulting fees and patents. While some argue the growing ties to industry are necessary in order to fund large-scale university research projects, there is growing concern in the scientific community that corporate money is tainting the validity of their work.

In 2005, a panel of National Academies that included both industry and academic members concluded that corporate R&D “cannot and should not replace federal R&D.” Yet, Norman Augustine, the panel’s chairman and former CEO at Lockheed Martin, made note that market pressures and the dwindling number of available federal research grants have compelled industry to put nearly all its investments into applied research.

At UC Berkeley, Swiss agricultural biotechnology company Novartis agreed to pay $25 million in 1998 to the Department of Plant and Microbial Biology in exchange for first right to license about a third of the department’s discoveries. Company representatives even have a vote on the committee that decides how the money will be spent. Unlike more basic science funding, where innovation often takes 10 to 15 years to lead to profit, many corporations have influenced researchers to create their own positive PR through beneficial test results.

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The University of Melbourne received around $30 million from government grants in 2012. Photo: James Davies

“We know from a number of meta-analyses that corporate funding leads to results that are favorable to the corporate funder,” says Food and Water Watch researcher Tim Schwab. In a Union of Concerned Scientists study, more than half of US Fish and Wildlife Service scientists reported they believe that “commercial interests have inappropriately induced the reversal or withdrawal of scientific conclusions or decisions through political intervention.” Yet, a number of academics and scientists maintain that corporate support is actually beneficial, as it provides enhanced funding for R&D, speeds the transfer of knowledge to industry and boosts economic growth.

Indeed, with the dearth of federal funding, corporate investment represents the only funding choice available for many schools. “It adds to the diversity of our funding,” says Katherine Rojo del Busto, executive associate vice president in Texas A&M University’s division of research and graduate students. “It helps build relationships with industry so we can understand the things that make us competitive.”

While several other administrators and academics agree that there is more reward for discoveries that can be commercialized, most agree that increased scrutiny is necessary. Most industry-funded studies are subject to far less oversight than comparable federally funded studies, and unlike federally funded research, the results are not required to be made public.

While corporate funding for scientific research may be inevitable, many in the academic community are concerned that the balance has shifted too far away from public interest and toward corporate profits. Without a commitment to independent thought and objectivity, the validity of research results — and the related public confidence in public institutions — may soon diminish significantly.

The 2005 National Academies panel called for an immediate doubling of federal investment in basic science, asserting that basic science is a quintessential public good that can only be properly funded by the federal government. Until further government funding is made available, though, universities working with private investors will need to strengthen policies governing conflicts of interest and research integrity in order to ensure objectivity and consistency throughout all of academia.

* The author is Emma Collins, an education blogger known for her recent work on a report compiling the top MBA programs of 2012

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