Industry Investment in Academic Research

Private investment in university research may take a number of forms. Companies may offer universities large grants in exchange for patent rights to anticipated discoveries or establish lucrative consulting arrangements with faculty members who provide sponsoring corporations with priority access to valuable research. Faculty members sometimes own equity interests in biotechnology firms related to their work, or they may found their own corporations. And in what is so far a rare agreement, a corporation may provide an academic research institute generous payments in exchange for the right to market all the institution's discoveries. These secondary—financial—interests threaten to undermine the university's primary interests of advancing basic knowledge, promoting the open exchange of ideas, providing a source of expertise for society, and training future scientists (Etzkowitz; Ashford).

In 2003 Justin E. Bekelman, Yan Li, and Cary P. Gross provided a systematic review of the extent and nature of commercial influence on biomedical research. The researchers found that about one-fourth of biomedical scientists at academic institutions receive research funding from industry, while two-thirds of academic institutions hold equity interests in biotechnology firms. According to the survey findings, it is likely that such relationships bias scientific outcomes because published studies sponsored by industry are substantially more likely than nonindustry studies to reach conclusions favorable to the sale of the sponsors' products. Faculty sponsored by industry are more likely than other faculty to report that publication of their research results was delayed, and more than half of the firms surveyed reported that their contracts typically demand delays in publication of more than six months. Between 12 percent and 34 percent of investigators reported that they had tried to obtain and had been denied access to research results by industry sponsors.

If free exchange through traditional scholarly mediums of conferences and publications is blunted, scientists will be unable to examine and replicate experiments, and scientific progress may be endangered. Some contractual agreements with industries specifically require scientists to withhold submission of their findings to professional journals until the corporation has determined if the information warrants patent protection. After patent protection is secured, the findings can be released to the general scientific community. The propriety of these arrangements depends in part on the length and impact of the delay of release of scientifically important information and varies from contract to contract. It is possible that much of the research that is withheld from the scientific community as trade secrets has little intrinsic scientific value or applicability and is limited to information such as scientifically unimportant formulas for products, scientific instrument calibrations, or engineering tolerances (Snapper).

Commercial considerations can distort academic life in other respects. Researchers may be tempted to devote time earmarked for the university to their commercial projects and to use university resources, including graduate assistants and laboratory staff, for their own financial benefit. Graduate students are particularly vulnerable to the availability of funds; the entire course of their careers may be guided by the source of their mentors' grants (Porter 1992a; Blumenthal). The prospect of large infusions of money into a cash-starved university might make an institution less scrupulous when evaluating potential research projects. For example, an institutional review board (IRB) might be less likely to point out problematic aspects of an experimental study if they believe that the corporate sponsor will withdraw its funds and go elsewhere with the proposal. An existing or potential grant might influence a university's decision on the composition of its faculty, the structure of a department, and the granting of tenure (Nelkin and Nelson). Financial incentives have encouraged some university researchers to redirect their work toward projects that are more likely to yield financial rewards. Such a redirection of research might encourage researchers to value applied projects with clear commercial ends and patentable uses over basic science projects whose practical applications are uncertain. While society benefits from applied research, fundamental breakthroughs and scientific progress are predicated on a strong commitment to basic research.

Despite these caveats, private funding of university research serves as an effective and essential supplement to government funding. Some reports demonstrate that, in general, industry-funded scientists publish more, produce more patentable discoveries, and still manage to teach as much and to serve as many administrative roles as colleagues without corporate financial support (Blumenthal). Industrial subsidies allow universities to support a more talented and larger faculty and to improve their facilities. Therefore, some authors argue that the danger of increased commercial presence in universities must be weighed against the positive contributions made by industry funding (Blake).

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