Troubled conscience in academe: Industry's help priced too high?
San Francisco — Even those who say that industry-university research links are logical and beneficial admit that there are pitfalls. Some academicians believe those pitfalls can be avoided, but others fear financial relationships with industry cost universities too many compromises.
In an ''open lecture'' last March, Dr. Leon Wofsy, Berkeley immunology professor, said, in effect, that universities and individual researchers pay too high a price for financial help from industry.
Among the costs he cited: the ''pressure'' not only to ''take money'' but to ''make money''; apparent conflicts of interest created when university professors and administrators hold directorships and other positions in corporations; surrender of patent rights to inventions; loss of the traditional free flow of information within the academic community; erosion of the ''peer review'' process for both setting up research programs and reporting their results; delay of publication in scientific journals so that corporate funders can review discoveries in which they have proprietary interest; university administrations' circumvention or undercutting of their own regulations by ''direct financing of commercial projects in faculty laboratories''; setting up ''independent'' institutes ''whose membership is precisely the same as the faculty''; and neglect of teaching duties by ''two-hat'' professors.
Dr. Carl Djerassi, professor of organic chemistry at Stanford University, told a US House Committee on Science and Technology at a hearing last year that his own experience proved that ''one can wear two hats.''
Dr. Djerassi, who started in private industry and later joined the Stanford faculty, is president and co-founder of Zoecon Corporation and on the board of Cetus Corporation, with his time divided about half and half between academic and industry work.
''One has to be very careful about wearing two or more hats,'' he admitted.'' But,'' he continued, ''I will never work in my academic research on a topic that is of relevance to my industrial connection. . . . I have never accepted money from the industrial organization with which I was involved for research I'm doing at the university. . . . I have not filed a single patent since I became a professor, even though I also wear an industrial hat.''
Dr. Donald Kennedy, president of Stanford University, set forth in the same hearing what he termed ''opportunities'' and ''pitfalls'' of the present situation. Citing the ''disturbingly long'' time it often takes for ''diffusion of innovations from the research laboratory to their application in the public interest,'' he said involvement of private companies in basic research could shorten that ''lag time.''
Rep. Albert A. Gore, Jr. (D), who chaired the House hearing, however, holds that productivity - that is, moving research findings more quickly into the marketplace - is not always a sufficient reason for forming an industry-university link.
To Dr. Kennedy, ''commercial interest in basic research, whether it involves the attraction of scientists to industry or increased support of academic work by industry, will add a new and needed source of funding . . . at a time at which it is especially needed.''
Problems, he told the House hearing, include ''increasing involvement of university faculty members in outside affiliations with particular companies'' with the ''prospect of significant contamination of the university's basic research enterprise by the introduction of strong commercial motivations and potential conflicts of interest on the part of faculty members.''
He also cited ''the danger of sharp dissociation between research as it moves more into industrial settings and research training, which has always been a critical obligation of the universities and which industry is unequipped to do.''
A third major problem described by the Stanford president: ''The commercial environment is characterized by many more constraints upon the openness and accessibility of scientific and technical information than is the university environment. Proprietary restraints on the free exchange of data have already begun to crop up'' at biomedical research meetings, he said, and are presenting challenges to the policies of scientific societies and journals accustomed to open publication. Even more damage has been done to the informal roots of communication that characterize most vigorous fields of basic biological research.
'' . . . There are at least three or four incidents during this past year ( 1980-81) in which at scientific meetings, (and) at which the traditional valuation of basic research had always been expected to prevail, there were communications in which a scientist actually refused on questioning to divulge some detail of technique, claiming that, in fact, it was a proprietary matter and that he was not free to communicate it.''
Dr. Robert L. Sinsheimer, chancellor of the University of California at Santa Cruz, points out that public institutions ''have learned to live with a considerable degree of openness.'' This is not true of private companies, he says, which ''in some cases find the idea of public disclosure sort of an unthinkable idea.''
Private institutions, he indicated, are more willing than public ones to ''compromise the ideal of the university with the exigencies of 'real life.' It's obviously easier,'' he comments, ''to make those compromises in a cloistered or less-public milieu.''
Unlike Stanford's Djerassi, Dr. Sinsheimer does not subscribe to the ''two-hat'' theory. He says conflicts of interest are almost inevitable in such situations and that individuals should have to choose between being entrepreneurs and academicians. Such situations also threaten the welfare of students, the UC-Santa Cruz chancellor says.
In March, leaders of five universities and heads of ll corporations met at Pajaro Dunes near Watsonville, Calif., to explore ways of cooperating. Their discussions were private. Though their meetings at the resort may have been, as detractors insist, short on results, they were at least evidence that university administrators have not ignored the incidents that have occurred and the warnings being issued by their academic colleagues.
Although some of the major corporations involved in academic research were not present, the press, the public and representatives of student groups were also excluded. Dr. Kennedy said this provided better opportunity for ''full and frank'' discussions and to ''get some general principles on the record.'' He indicated that more such meetings would be taking place, and apparently they will.
Another conference has been scheduled in December at the University of Pennsylvania to discuss industry-university relations. Thomas Langfitt, Pennsylvania's vice-president for health affairs, said the presidents of Cornell , Johns Hopkins, Princeton, Washington University in St. Louis, Yale, and the Universities of Michigan and Texas have been invited.
Next year a broader meeting, open to the public, will take place if one of the leading critics of university policies regarding industry ties has his way. Al Meyerhoff, senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), along with Ralph Nader, Joan Claybrook, president of Public Citizen Inc., and a number of others, is seeking funds to stage such a conference.
Mr. Meyerhoff says the document produced at Pajaro Dunes ''consisted only of the vaguest of guidelines'' and ''failed to address the vital issues surrounding conflicts of interest or the use of exclusive patents provided to business entities contributing to university research projects.''
Meyerhoff and the NRDC struck a major blow for openness in California earlier this year. At their urging, the California Fair Political Practices Commission issued regulations, in reaction to the Valentine-Calgene case at UC-Davis, requiring full disclosure by scientists on University of California campuses of all financial and equity interests they have in companies funding their research and the delegation of a committee responsible for decisions on research that might be affected by a potential conflict.
Last June, Meyerhoff suggested federal legislation mandating ''full, public disclosure.''
There is no shortage of suggestions for governing industry-university and industry-faculty relationships. They range from conservative to radical, from ''let each institution make its own rules'' to ''pass a federal law applicable to all institutions, public and private, that receive government funds.''
The fact that public disclosure was only briefly mentioned and conflict of interest only hinted at in the statement issued at the close of the meeting, was due to the inability of conferees to reach consensus on those topics, according to one participant.
The summary statement did, however, define areas of concern and make some general suggestions, under the following headings:
Research agreements. To satisfy faculty, students, and the general public that basic academic values are maintained, the conferees said universities might ''make public the relevant provisions of research contracts with industry. Another method may be to allow a faculty committee or some other competent body to examine all research contracts with industry and assure that their terms are consistent with essential academic values.''
Patent licensing. Noting that federal law allows universities to own patents and issue commercial licenses based on them, the statement said that ''universities have a responsibility to initiate and maintain effective patent and patent-licensing programs.'' On the disputed question of whether universities should be able to issue exclusive development licenses, the conferees said that they should, ''provided exclusivity seems important to allow prompt, vigorous development. . . . When exclusivity is allowed, however, it should be permitted for only the interval necessary to encourage the desired development.''
Significantly, they added: ''Universities should not be improperly influenced in choosing a licensee by the fact that a faculty member, or the university itself, is a substantial stockholder or has other significant ties with a particular company.''
The university and its faculty. '' . . . Professors' relationships with commercial firms should not be allowed to interfere with their overriding obligation to the university to fulfill their primary responsibilities of teaching and research.''
In cases where a professor is a substantial stockholder in a private company, the statement said, investment by the university in that company ''may cause others to believe that the university encourages entrepreneurial activities by its faculty'' or ''cause, or appear to cause, the university to extend preferential treatment to the professor. . . . Hence, it is not advisable for universities to make such investments unless they are convinced that there are sufficient safeguards to avoid adverse effects on the morale of the institution or on the academic relationships between the university, its faculty, and its students.''
Critics say that statement is so full of loopholes as to be virtually meaningless.
Finally, the Pajaro Dunes conferees said: ''We do not view this summary statement as the end of the process of deliberation on these important issues. Rather, we offer it as a contribution to further consideration . . . , an agenda of issues that may be a useful framework for the development of policy.''
The five institutions represented at Pajaro Dunes have been involved in advanced research funded through both private and government sources for so long that they have longstanding regulations governing such relationships. But these universities are feeling the strains created by the increased industry role, by the new technologies, particularly in biological processes, and by a new kind of professor, an academician who is attracted by the opportunities for wealth, prestige, and power.
Dr. Kenneth Smith, vice-president of MIT, told the Monitor: ''I think we were in a better position to deal with some of these problems than some of the other universities. . . . I think we've had some heightened awareness of possible difficulties in the biotechnology area, but we've not changed any of our procedures, although we might move a little bit in the direction of more disclosure than previously.
''We require that every faculty member report annually to his or her department head, and that report includes how many days during the academic year that individual worked as a consultant, whether or not that individual has a significant interest in any outside firm. We're not interested in a few shares of General Motors stock, but we are interested in any kind of entrepreneurial activity.
''General information of that kind must be reported to each department head each year. If the department head views the report as showing more than usual activity, then that is reported to the general administration. We do not allow our faculty to have line responsibilities in any outside firm, you can own a piece of an outside firm, you can be a director of an outside firm, but you cannot be a president or vice-president, and so forth.
''There are some who say that this disclosure is inherently an internal MIT disclosure and should be much more public,'' says Smith.
Dr. Charles Schwartz, professor of physics at UC-Berkeley, has long been concerned with the prevalence of consulting arrangements between members of the academic community and industry.
In 1975 Professor Schwartz proposed ''. . . that all universities should adopt a disclosure policy, whereby every faculty or other staff member who engages in outside consulting should make an annual report of this activity available for public inspection. Such a report should include the name and location of each person or organization served, the amount of time spent and the compensation received for each consulting job, a brief description of the work done, along with copies of any written reports produced.''
No institution to date has adopted a disclosure plan that rigorous.