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”.