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Academic Freedom and the Commercialization of Universities

The Ethics of Corporate-University Partnerships

I have previously blogged about "The Selling of American Universities". In this blog I examine the ethics of university-corporate partnerships in the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industries.

The depressed economy in the U.S. coupled with federal deficits, lack of state funding, budget cutbacks for higher education, and inadequate funding for specialized programs at universities, has led to increasing solicitation of outside sources of funds by universities. With chronic budget deficits, university administrators are under intense pressure to become more entrepreneurial. Industry and corporate interests are responding by infusing significant amounts of money into universities, often attached to various conditions and expectations. As a result, conflicts of interest can and do exist between supporting the donors’ interests and doing the right thing for the university, faculty, and the students.

Last Tuesday Wall Street Journal reporter Hannah Karp wrote about the University of California at San Francisco being the first school to get a partnership with Pfizer Inc. -- worth up to $85 million over five years. Faculty and students will work alongside Pfizer's top scientists and use the company's resources. Pfizer gets access to any breakthroughs that come from the shared research. Susan Desmond-Hellmann, chancellor at the UCSF advocates getting closer with the industry in order to spark new ideas, fund research, access high-tech equipment and speed medical advances to patients.

There is no denying that a close partnership between a major pharmaceutical company with world class scientists and research facilities and a top notch medical school such as UCSF with highly-educated scientists can have major benefits with respect to discovering the next best drug to fight cancer and other diseases. However, potential conflicts can arise as a result of the close ties. For example, what happens if Pfizer expects UCSF as an institution, and its researcher/faculty members as individuals, to support Pfizer in ways that impinge on academic freedom? Are faculty members expected to take positions that obligate them to support Pfizer pharmaceuticals over competing products in research studies and classroom discussions?

Academic freedom is a core value in universities that provides an environment of free inquiry and autonomy to faculty over their work, independent of conflicting interests. This freedom includes the dissemination of ideas or facts that may be undesirable or inopportune to university administrators, political parties, authorities, and corporate sponsors. In principle, academic freedom allows for the dissemination of knowledge in research and teaching, without the fear of reprisal in the form of dismissal, harassment or repression.

The American Association of University Professors’ 1940 Statement of Principles  on Academic Freedom and Tenure states that universities exist to promote the public interest, and not to further the interest of the individual professor or the institution as a whole [or, of course, any commercial sponsor]. Promoting the public interest depends on the free search for truth and its free elucidation. Academic freedom applies to teaching and research. Freedom in research is fundamental to the advancement of truth, while freedom in teaching is fundamental to the protection of the rights of the teacher in teaching and of the student to freedom in learning.

The reality today is that university administrators, who have significant decision-making powers, proactively seek large corporate sources of funding. The enticement of such funding and/or pressure and threats from commercial sponsors and university administrators may cause, or give the appearance of causing, some academics to compromise their academic values while other academics may experience retaliation for upholding these values.

One example comes from the University of California at Berkeley where professor of microbial biology, Ignatio Chapela, an outspoken critic of Berkeley’s commercial ties to the biotechnology industry, was denied tenure in 2003, despite overwhelming support for his tenure application by faculty colleagues in his department, as well as unanimous approval by a five-member university ad hoc committee. His application was rejected by a third committee, which included a faculty member who served on the advisory committee for the University of California-Novartis deal, which gave the Swiss pharmaceutical corporation and producer of genetically engineered crops exclusive licensing rights to approximately one third of the Plant and Microbial Biology Department’s research discoveries in exchange for a payment of $25 million.

Chapela’s disputed research found that genetically-engineered corn had infiltrated native maize in Mexico. The denial-of-tenure decision was linked to his role as a leading opponent of the Novartis deal, with an independent review by Michigan State University researchers concluding that there was little doubt that the deal played a role in the denial of tenure. After enduring years of criticism, UC reversed its decision and granted tenure to  Chapela.

One of the problems with the growing trend toward commercialism in today’s universities is that it exacerbates the already growing trend of placing increased emphasis on bringing in funds through grant-related research projects and placing commercial arrangements, without considering the ethics of such activities. For example, accepting funds from commercial interests may lead to compromising objective decision making if, for example, the commercial supporter (i.e., a corporation) expects that in return for the funding the university will slant its curriculum in a way that portrays the corporation in a more positive light than might occur absent the financial support.

Universities must take care not to jeopardize their role as independent disseminators of knowledge and information in the name of raising badly needed funds. Commercial relationships with biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies are quite common. I am not advocating ending all such relationships. I am advocating that universities should have independent bodies in place to evaluate whether such relationships pose a threat to academic independence and, if so, appropriate measures should be taken to prevent compromising the public interest in the name of pursuing the self-interests of faculty/researchers and the university.   

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on February 16, 2012