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Corporate cash & campus labs

The credibility of university research is on the line as industry steps up its funding

By Mark Clayton Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 19, 2001

It was to be a landmark university-corporate research partnership: Novartis, a Swiss-based pharmaceutical conglomerate, would pay $25 million over five years to the University of California at Berkeley.

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But what the company was to get in return shocked faculty, students, and outsiders alike.

In exchange for funding, Novartis would be allowed to sift through the research of the department of plant and microbial biology at Berkeley's College of Natural Resources - licensing up to about one-third of the researchers' output.

Students declared it a sellout. Legislators scheduled hearings. Professors protested the secrecy of the negotiations. One professor decried the deal for creating an "apartheid" of have and have-not faculty. Outside observers were no less impassioned.

"What if the [Novartis-Berkeley] experiment were to succeed?" wrote Robert Rosenzweig, former president of the Association of American Universities, in response to the deal. "What would be the next part of the university to be sold to a corporation?"

Portending the turmoil to come, company and university officials announcing the November 1998 deal at a press conference had to duck to avoid being hit by a pie. Despite protests, the deal went through, and administrators report that it is working.

Yet misgivings persist. "This is a public university that is supposed to work for all sectors of society," says Miguel Altieri, associate professor at Berkeley. "Obviously the sectors we're going to be working for in the future are the ones that bring in the money."

Such comments only hint at the vortexes created by university-corporate partnerships. Critics cite fears over limits on academic freedom, conflicts of interest among researchers, and bias creeping into scientific research.

Over the long run, observers also worry that research priorities might shift away from breaking scientific ground to more short-term, product-related efforts. And there is the possibility, too, that the public will lose confidence in higher-education research.

Nelson Kiang, professor emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has watched the changes during his long career. What's different today is that "the sheer number of corporations involved in sponsoring research has exploded," he says. "The ethos of the university is the free exchange of ideas. Now we're running into two sets of ideas from two cultures. When they start to interact intimately, accommodations have to be made. At the moment, there's no agreed upon way to do that."

Acknowledging a deep divide between corporate America and American universities, a two-year study issued last week by the Business-Higher Education Forum - a partnership between the American Council on Education and the National Alliance of Business - outlined problems and recommendations for smoothing the rocky road between the two worlds.

"Some research collaborations have experienced serious, high-profile difficulties," stated Hank McKinell, chairman of the board of the New York-based pharmaceutical company Pfizer and co-chair of the report task force. "The report is intended to help clarify the issues."

Bullies in the lab?

One such issue is academic freedom. Corporate and academic priorities clash when scientists want to share research discoveries, but contracts often require secrecy for 30 to 90 days or longer while patents are weighed.