The problem with industry-supported research

Industry funded academic research is a problem.

Industry-sponsored academic research often ends up in the hands of single corporations. I think this defeats the overall goal of academic research, which is to improve everyone’s lot in life.

There’s a growing trend, in many areas of academia (such as engineering), to expect industry to at least partially match government research funding. The advantages, they say, are that industry involvement creates greater opportunity for knowledge and technology transfer, and academia can identify industry-relevant problems faster and easier. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that the financial burden of research is partly transferred away from government; in this way, governments can be seen as “saving money.”

But there’s a problem. Say you do academic research in automotive engineering. That research will likely be supported substantively by an automaker. The intellectual property that is generated by that research will be held by the direct stakeholders – the researchers, and the automaker. And the academic researchers are invariably prohibited from sharing their results with other stakeholders who didn’t provide funding for the research.

Some might argue that this is reasonable since the automakers who participated in the research essentially paid (in part) for the research to be done. Few are the corporations that would pay for research, but then allow the results to be given to the competition. However, when only one corporation has research results, only their customers/clients will benefit from those results; everyone else is just out of luck.

This conflicts directly with the fundamental goal of academic research: to develop new knowledge to be used by everyone and to improve everyone’s lot in life. The point of academic research is to benefit people, not corporations.

Academia is the gatekeeper, creator, maintainer, and disseminator of knowledge. Not only is academia the world’s “reference library,” we’re also the ones writing and publishing new books to add to that library all the time. And academia is also in charge of making sure people learn as much of that stuff as they want (or, at least, unfortunately, can afford to learn). It’s a great responsibility, and it’s one that we academics are abandoning when we let our corporate sponsors “own” the knowledge we develop.

There are also ethical dangers in industry funding. I was once approached by a company interested in having me, as an academic researcher, verify the performance of a device. They told me they were already completely convinced the device worked as they claimed, but they also believed it would be beneficial to them to have a dispassionate third party (me) validate their findings.  So far, so good.

After several months of negotiation, however, it became apparent that the company really wanted to pay me simply to rubber stamp their own evaluations. That’s unethical. I terminated the negotiations immediately, but I would also expect that there will be some people, somewhere, who would have accepted the terms of the contract. Depending on other factors in an academic’s life, the need to maintain funded research can overwhelm other concerns. That is just human nature, and expecting every academic to be always ethical is about as foolish as expecting the general population to be always ethical. Still, the onus is higher on the academic than on the general public to act ethically, by virtue of the nature of academia, so we need to do whatever we can to ensure ethical behaviour while imposing as little extra work on academics as possible. The last thing we should want is to impose any unnecessary burdens on good academics for the sake of weeding out the relatively few bad apples.

So here’s what’s needed: to separate the vested interests of corporations from the execution of research. First, use taxation of corporations to fund research. This is already done, in that a fraction of tax revenues is already allocated to support research; all that’s needed is to increase the tax rate to cover all the costs of research rather than depending on corporations to provide some money to researchers on their own.

Second, institute a system to ensure that the distribution of those tax revenues to researchers is at arms-length from both corporations and academic researchers. This must be done in an entirely open and transparent manner to help ensure that all stakeholders in research – corporations (including the academic institutions themselves), researchers, and the general public – can know that the allocation of funds is consistent, just, and ethical.  This means, among other things, allowing everyone to see at least certain elements of every grant application, to make public the names and affiliations of reviewers as well as the decisions about funding and the rationales for those decisions.

Third, leave all IP generated from research (with the possible exception of certain “high risk” endeavours like weapons, particularly dangerous diseases, etc.) with the researchers themselves under some kind of open license (rather like, for instance, one of the Creative Commons licenses). This will help ensure that attribution is maintained, while still offering the opportunity for researchers and academic institutions to use that IP to generate some income.

Finally, require all academic institutions to operate as social businesses. This will allow the institutions to generate income from its IP (for instance, by licensing it to industries) but will also require that all such generated funding be reinvested either in the employees of the institution or in growing the institution.

If industry wants to do research on its own terms, then they can do as they have done for a long time: open and operate their own research facilities. Such facilities, being part of the corporation, will not be subject to any of these restrictions. There’s nothing wrong with industries and businesses doing their own R&D. There is something wrong with subverting the goals of academic research for the sake of industrial corporate success.


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