Skip R – Go Right to D

In Nature Nanotechnology, we find a commentary by Philip Moriarty that notes “the increasing empahsis on commercialization and market forces in modern universities is fundamentally at odds with core academic principles.”

I like the quote from The Lancet’s conflicts of interest policy: “academics have a choice – to develop their entrepreneurial skills or to maintain a commitment to public-interest science – and we do not accept that the two options are mutually compatible.”

Dr. Moriarity forcefully states that “the focus on market-driven wealth creation within publicly funded academic research … is morally bankrupt.” Well then.

How about labs that hold back on publishing an organism’s genome (especially pathogens) until they can file a patent application and submit follow-on grant applications studying said genome toward developing new therapeutics. Similar scenario with any discovery offering the potential to generate wealth. This will only become more common if US patent law is modified to join the world in “first to file” (versus first to invent).

Further, academic “research” can often better be labeled product development. For example, figuring out you can pour clumping kitty litter (modified equivalent) into wounds (or cover them with a bandage made of the same material) to stop the bleeding quickly. You don’t need to be doing materials science or coagulation research but do need to be aware of the DoD-generated product need and then notice what happens when a cat pisses in the litterbox and realize that blood spurting out of a punctured artery would clump (& clot) this stuff in the same way. Research? Hmmm. Certainly some safety and efficacy testing – but this project is earning the inventors & their University boatloads of money under the “research” umbrella.

Similarly, how about a University turning to a Brandcenter to “brand” clinical and translational research. I never realized research needed to go through a “branding” process, though I guess a Congressionally motivated CTSA aim is to move “products” to the clinic (& market) faster.

But why stop with branding? Why not formally embrace product development to support this brand? Universities could set up a dedicated product development division, with marketing and product placement partners in their Schools of Business. Someone from the division could go around to each school/department to determine what research they are doing that could be pitched to industry and when these efforts could be converted from “research” to product development. The key would be to ensure funding for development comes from returns on tech transfer income and commercial investment rather than taxpayers or nonprofits. Useful and potentially lucrative products could be developed (with excess profits hopefully helping support the University’s basic research program) – just not in facilities funded by tax-exempt bonds and not with public funds meant to advance social good.

Of course, another issue would be the institutional oversight structure. Having the same VP/VC in charge of getting more government grants for the University and increasing licensing income (“wealth creation”) and monitoring COI/compliance/misconduct would be a recipe for disaster. The money-making researchers already get the plumb space and equipment assignments plus lots of students and postdocs … the temptation to look the other way in cases of “normal misbehavior” or worse so as to maintain their revenue stream would be just too great, methinks.

Update of sorts correspondence in Nature noting “a worsening philosophical divide in US academia between those who regard universities as analogous to corporations and think they should be run that way (mostly career administrators) and those who see universities as primarily intellectual enterprises governed by academic core values (mostly line faculty).” Sadly, Dr. Clark describes an institution (and its leadership) I know all too well to a “T”.


  1. noblesse d'epee said

    This is an insightful, well-written essay. Since I am a “basic sciences” (e.g. biochemistry) graduate student in the Duke University Medical Center, I directly observe the oversight problems that you mention in your last paragraph. DUMC’s response to the ongoing Homme Hellinga scandal (and the related problem of [Hellinga’s wife] Lorena Beese’s outrageously unethical mismanagement of the “shared” Duke X-ray crystallography center) will demonstrate whether its ‘revenue stream’ takes precedence over its ethics. Since the DUMC is essentially a business masquerading as an educational institution, I suspect that conservation of revenue will trump all other considerations.

    In fairness, I should concede that DUMC is a profitably-run business that provides superb patient care and excellent translational medical research. The problem, as so nicely described in ‘Skip R, Go Right to D”s post, is that the same administrators who effectively manage the treatment and development aspects of the institution possess both an inadequate understanding of the basic sciences and the motive to do so. Perhaps basic science research programs are better served under the auspices of Arts and Science colleges. A problem is that most Arts and Science programs are chronically under-funded; consequently professors and grad. students receive (on average) less remuneration (than in medical school divisions) and carry a significantly higher teaching burden. As a result, well-funded but academically isolated medical school research programs are populated with high-calibre faculty and students who sometimes find themselves pressured by their administrators to “find something medically or commercially relevant.” High-quality research is funded by outside entities, the hospital administration skims off its “indirect costs,” and a system is perpetuated wherein festering misconduct disasters are ignored.

    I am humbly appreciative of your kind words. And exceedingy concerned by this issue and your contributed observations. I’ve already witnessed questionable actions resulting from the concentration of all decision making in one person/office and feel this can only get worse, especially if the NIH has publicized their lack of concern with monitoring financial COI beyond the honor system of reporting … despite the clear failings of such a system. Martinson, Anderson, et al. have been looking at the impact of procedural justice on the behavior of scientists, and I suspect feelings of entitlement and injustice (in different groups of researchers) resulting from questionable institutional hierarchies could further fuel “normal misbehavior” – or worse. – writedit

  2. iGrrrl said

    I don’t disagree with most of your points, writedit, but another view:

    The CTSA aim might be more kindly stated as accelerating the movement of basic research results into practice, and thus justifying support of basic research by the Public Health Service via NIH. The idea of “product” from government supported science has a longer history than the CTSA idea. Dare I bring up the the Bayh-Dole Act? That piece of legislation is interpreted as mandating that universities patent and support the commercialization of results from federally-supported research. Where money, or the potential for money, is involved, people and organizations get weird, but universities developed tech transfer offices in response to federal law. What happens after? Well, it can be as you describe. The goal can change from supporting faculty who want to patent, to cajoling faculty into patenting, to pushing faculty to do patentable/marketable work only.

    Dr. Moriarty writes from the UK. I don’t know that they have similar legislation.

    Like you, I am uneasy about the idea of branding, yet the last NIH conference I went to was partly supported by a company in the business of helping to establish brand identity. It seems NIH is not averse to the idea, but until your post, I had never understood why such a company would sponsor an NIH regional. My naivete is showing.

    Thanks for the thoughtful contribution iGrrrl, especially the insightful view of how Bayh-Dole implementation has “evolved.” Great synopsis. I have wondered why after a couple of decades in existence it’s suddenly unAmerican for federally funded researchers to not patent all the IP they create. Moriarity cites recent (2005, 2007) literature not impressed with the impact of Bayh-Dole, though I think it’s only in the last few years tech transfer as an academic industry has taken off. Still, Fabrizio from Emory is likely correct in arguing that “increasing university patenting is associated with a slowing pace of knowledge exploitation.” Hard to do when everyone is too busy protecting IP rather than contributing to the knowledgebase. – writedit

  3. another Duke guy said

    Well, I think there are two topics being mixed up here. One is the idea of unethical use of funds or pure mismanagement. The other is the idea of that research should remain as a pristine concept isolated from development. The first is obviously what we are trying to avoid, and stronger legislation should be in place to prevent it. The last is not only naive but also ignores the fact that market and science are strongly linked. Or do you think we would have 28+ billion dollars from NIH for biomedical research if science itself were not generating a strong return to the economy. I also believe the concept from the CTSA is extremely sound, although whether we will only be able to evaluate whether its strategy paid off in may years from now. In sum, purism may sound nice and poetic, but it is clearly unrealistic.

    Thanks for your thoughts, Duke guy, though I’m not sure I understand what you think “stronger legislation should be in place to prevent.” I was referring to the oversight structure being vulnerable to conflict of interest and less than rigorous investigation of potential misconduct if the researcher in question also brings in significant amounts of money. Nothing that could be legislated though. More broadly, I am not suggesting that the link between science and economic exploitation of research be divorced. Indeed, the NIH itself lists as one of its goals: “Expand the knowledge base in medical and associated sciences in order to enhance the Nation’s economic well-being and ensure a continued high return on the public investment in research.” The concern is that Universities are pushing their scientists to pursue work with the justifiable potential to generate IP and tech transfer dollars rather than encouraging them to do research to answer questions (that, when answered, will likely point to efficient strategies for developing therapeutics etc.). Moriarty’s essay includes some nice examples of major breakthroughs that did not and probably could not have resulted from product-driven studies. So, faculty/staff who conduct basic, non-applied research that may or may not result in paradigm-shifting discoveries should not have to compete for University resources with those who focus on income-generating product development for their sponsors (especially large investment grants by pharmaceutical companies who are then given first right of refusal on potentially licensable IP generated) … and Universities, whose mission and debt to society is the advancement and teaching of knowledge, should give priority to those pursuing intellectual challenges rather than corporate licensing deals. May I suggest revisiting the classical definition of a University. Again, perhaps we just need a different name for these hybrid entities that both teach and grant degrees and pursue product development beyond the basic research … perhaps even a way to make them a publicly traded commodity for easier and more egalitarian investment (I’d invest some of my retirement dollars in select institutions). And on the CTSAs, I have not argued with the concept – just the implementation. Interestingly, NCRR itself does not consider the receipt of NIH grant funding to be a benefit to research supported by a CTSA and does not want these data reported. This discussion reminds me to check to see if an invention disclosure is a reportable benefit … – writedit

  4. writedit said

    Science’s Elizabeth Pain has a balanced feature, Playing Well with Industry, that reviews many of these issues in terms of negotiating academic-industry contracts and offers some resource links (US & European) at the end.

  5. […] research record (study design, publication bias, ghostwriting). He likewise was not happy to see Universities becoming mini-drug companies (such as at Duke), particularly if they next turn to marketing their developed products – at which […]

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