Commercialism Distorts Research

EFFORTS to confirm the claim that scientists at the University of Utah can produce hydrogen fusion in a jar at room temperature have led to the disappointment that skeptics expected. They also show up the perils of scientific hucksterism. Pursuit of money replaced pursuit of knowledge at the university when B. Stanley Pons and his British colleague Martin Fleischmann made their claim at a hastily-called press conference last March. World-wide efforts to repeat their work have largely failed.

Now the investigating panel of the US Department of Energy has concluded that the ``evidence for ... cold fusion is not persuasive.'' It finds no justification for setting up government or private laboratories to study the supposed phenomenon. The panel's findings follow last month's announcement by Britain's Atomic Energy Authority Harwell laboratory that it has abandoned such research. The leader of the Harwell team called the notion of cold fusion ``a mad idea.''

Pons and Fleischmann and a few scientists elsewhere will continue to explore this now unlikely prospect for a new source of abundant energy. Indeed, the General Electric Co. has agreed to cooperate with the University of Utah in the research. But for the time being, at least, most energy researchers will watch the pursuit of the cold fusion chimera with amusement.

Nevertheless, there is an object lesson here that everyone involved - especially university scientists and administrators - should take very seriously. When greed replaced scholarship at the University of Utah, it stifled normal scientific communication and cooperation. Pons and Fleischmann never have provided an account of their work with sufficient detail for other experts to know what they are doing. While Pons and Fleischmann are individually responsible for their conduct, they appear to be gagged by profit-minded university administrators and their lawyers.

This has been a dramatic - at times, comic - example of a corrupting influence that has spread widely in academia in the United States. Many universities are making cozy arrangements with commercial companies in possibly lucrative fields such as biotechnology and electronics. Here too, normal scientific communication is becoming distorted. Some researchers even withhold findings for the sake of patent positions or because of restrictive contracts with commercial sponsors.

A university is primarily a center for education and free research. It is not a commercial enterprise. When the motivation of the market place displaces the motivation of scholarship, it corrupts a university's central purpose.

It is time for university administrations and faculties to take a hard look at where their efforts to find new sources of funding are taking them. If they abandon their essential purpose for the sake of money, they will lose far more than they could possibly gain. They will lose their reason for existing.

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