Corporate Interests in Science

Sam Irvine

Introduction

Currently in the UK most university research groups are typically publicly funded, as is most of the university system. Public budgets are under intense pressure with the ongoing financial crisis. As such, many universities are looking to court corporations to fund research relevant to that corporation’s interest. At first the benefits seem obvious, universities receive funding and the corporations receive the expertise of world class researchers in their respective fields. The extra funding will allow universities to reallocate funds, funding more than one research group and may be used to subsidise blue sky research. An area with mostly long term benefits and as such probably ignored by a profit driven body like a corporation.  In fact, the benefits may go much further than direct funding. Research groups may be given access to large data sets from previous studies they may not be able to recreate themselves. They may directly influence the development of new technologies and products, increasing the attractiveness and profile of the university. Finally, a university that can show many successful corporate partnerships will in turn attract more corporate partners and hence more funding and greater recognition. This is a facet becoming more and more important as universities need to compete with each other to justify their fees and attract new students. An important question to ask would be; should science stop worrying and learn to love big business?

Issues with Corporate Involvement in Science

There are many possible issues and pitfalls associated with corporate involvement in science. The aims of public science and corporations are very different as science is -nominally at least- based on openness and collaboration. Corporations conversely, are profit focused above all else. Openness and collaboration can in some cases drastically eat into the profitable nature of a venture, not least when patents are involved. Declaring results before obtaining a patent for the relevant innovation may allow rivals to poach the technology from underneath the corporation. Hence, some corporations request the results of scientific studies be kept secret, possibly indefinitely if the study casts doubt over the efficacy or safety of the product the corporation is investigating. There is a terrifying example of this from the pharmaceutical industry where safety is paramount and marginal gains in efficacy can have drastic consequences for a patient’s quality of life. The attempted suppression occurred in 1996 to Dr. Nancy Oliveri [1]. Oliveri identified an unexpected risk in a drug used to manage an inherited bone disorder.   When Oliveri attempted to warn patients and her colleagues, Apotex Inc. -the company behind the drug- prematurely cancelled the study and warned Oliveri that she would face legal action should the risks be disclosed to any third parties. Oliveri continued her analysis of the drug regardless and found a second more hazardous risk. Fortunately Oliveri ignored the further threats of legal action that followed this discovery to publish her results in a peer –reviewed journal. Oliveri was abandoned by her employing university and subject to intense criticisms from them and Apotex Inc. attempting to discredit her. Oliveri was finally vindicated in 2002 following a swathe of follow up studies confirming her results. Unfortunately the number of incidences of this suppression of results is hard to measure despite its worrying nature as it completely undermines the scientific principle of reporting all of your results.

So far, only the overt singular examples of undue corporate influence have been discussed. However, these are not the only way corporations may pervert the scientific process. Much more insidious are the quieter systemic effects, such as the continued blurring of the interests of big business and the public scientific interest as evidenced by the formation of the UK Department of Business, Innovation and Skills in 2009 from the merger of the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills and the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform [2]. This means that business is consulted when government policy on universities is formulated. This leads to business interests influencing university directions and policy. This may not be in the public interest as while business will direct research to the commercialisable technologies, less commercialisable technologies may fall to the wayside along with blue sky research. A short-sighted view, as blue sky research has multiple hard-to-track economic benefits in and of itself, even if the potential economic benefits from future technologies are ignored.

Last but not least is the effect a close partnership with an unethical business may harm a universities reputation or the reputation of its research. The power and funding of a university is dependent on its reputation, well respected universities receiving more funding and hold more sway in public sciences and science debate. If this is compromised by a scandal such as the one that struck Oliveri the public may question the integrity of said institution, potentially limiting the student intake of the university as well as the funding available to it.

Addressing These Issues

How to address the power imbalance between universities and corporations? One could suggest completely banning corporate involvement in public science. A churlish response that would address the issue but hamstring the UK’s research and development apparatus. Instead what is required is a powerful regulatory framework to limit the effect of corporate influence on publicly funded research. The first step would be to separate the regulation of the two sectors as their differing aims and methods have already sparked conflict between researchers, universities and business. This framework needs to be able to limit the demands corporations can impose on universities such as limiting the amount of time results can be supressed for. I personally would completely ban any suppression of results but then few businesses would agree to a framework where they cannot patent any of the resulting technologies. Although, if public money is used to perform any research then I argue these results should eventually become public, if only so corporate claims can be effectively vetted. This will limit the growing use of university research departments for corporations and so it will inevitably limit the amount of corporate funding some universities receive. Hence, it needs to be assessed as to whether this is an acceptable loss to retain the university independence and maintain basic standards of trustworthiness and integrity.

Universities need to demand minimum ethical standards from the business they choose to associate with. Firstly to protect their own reputation but more importantly to just reassure the public and their own academic and student bodies that the university is trustworthy and ethical.

Conclusion

Corporate interests in science will not disappear any time soon despite concerns over their influence on public research. Instead a comprehensive discussion needs to be commenced on how to protect researchers and limit the undue influence some corporations may hold over their partner research groups. I recommend the implementation of a protective framework to universities and researchers from each other and corporate interests. Ultimately corporate funding is now a part of modern science, this partnership has the potential to flourish and deliver many new technologies to the world but care needs to be taken to ensure public money is used to for the public good, an aim that may not line up with corporate interests.

References

[1]Langley, Chris, and Stuart Parkinson. “Science and the corporate agenda.”Scientists for Global Responsibility. http://www. sgr. org. uk/publications/science-and-corporateagenda (2009).

[2]https://www.gov.uk/government/organisations/department-for-business-innovation-skills/about [Accessed on 23/11/15]

 

 

Corporate Interests in Science

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