Corporate cash & campus labs
The credibility of university research is on the line as industry steps up its funding
(Page 2 of 3)
Betty Dong at the University of California, San Francisco, discovered data that led her to question the effectiveness of a medication being used daily by millions of people. But when she went to report it, she was blocked for seven years by the company that paid for the study.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
David Kahn, another researcher at the same school, was sued last November for $10 million by the company that sponsored his study, after he published a report that the AIDS drug he was testing was ineffective.
"They're like bullies in a sandbox who take away their toys when you don't agree with them," Dr. Kahn told The Chronicle of Higher Education.
Few foresaw these clashes two decades ago. Such research partnerships had long been a staple of American higher education, going all the way back to the 1862 federal legislation that created the land-grant university.
But university research started melding with the business world at a much faster pace with the 1980 passage of the Bayh-Dole Act. Bayh-Dole sped up the patenting process for university research, supercharging university-corporate partnerships with profits and competition.
In the 1970s, just a few hundred patents resulted from university research each year. But in fiscal 1999, more than 120 US research universities filed a total of 7,612 patent applications, according to the Association of University Technology Managers. Licenses to industry generated $641 million in gross income for the universities - and about $40 billion in economic activity overall.
"You used to have big corporations with labs that would do their own basic research," Mr. Kiang says. "But ... it's much more effective to turn the universities into R&D labs for them. By sprinkling money around ... they don't have to compete for the best brains in the academic world, they simply buy them at low cost."
The federal government is still by far the dominant funding source for university research. In 1998, corporations were responsible for less than 8 percent of the funding.
That may not sound like much, but it represents a seven-fold growth since 1970. According to the new report, the flood of patents has been a big boost to America's increasingly knowledge-based economy.
Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan told governors last year: "The payoffs, in terms of the flow of expertise, new products, and startup companies ... have been impressive."
Indeed, for every challenged program like the Novartis-Berkeley union, the Business-Higher Education Forum report documents other collaborations that are working well. At Washington University in St. Louis, for instance, a funding deal with Monsanto (now Pharmacia) has been harmoniously in place for two decades.
Smaller companies have prospered, too. Ribozyme Pharmaceuticals gave the University of Colorado a five-year, $500,000 unrestricted research grant. In return, the university shared research that helped the company grow.
Despite this robust productivity, some fear that a key product of universities - unbiased research - is at risk.
In some fields, especially medical research, scientists complain that corporate cash appears to be undermining the credibility of research results.
In 1996, Tufts researcher Sheldon Krimsky studied nearly 800 scientific papers published in prominent biology and medical journals. In 1 out of 3 cases, he found that a chief author of the paper had a financial interest in the company for which research was being done. In most cases, the connections were not disclosed to readers.