Science and the corporate university in Britain

The instrumentalisation of research and successive governments' preoccupation with 'impact' have gradually eroded the independence of British academia. Business and politics alike are narrowing funding and skewing outcomes.

It has surprised few that since coming to power the Cameron government has pursued an agenda which included pressing for much stronger links between university and business. The justification given is a simple one – that, to enhance our economic competitiveness in these difficult times, we need to become better at commercialising scientific and other academic research to help fuel economic growth. This is a perspective that has been gaining increasing support among policy-makers in the UK (and elsewhere) for over 20 years. But there are many flaws in this thesis – with the strongest evidence of problems coming from academic research itself.

The problems with this viewpoint range from the bias that can be introduced into individual research studies by the involvement of powerful commercial interests, right up to the broad shaping of research agendas. Evidence about these problems – especially in the UK – has been summarised in a recent report by Scientists for Global Responsibility (SGR). 

In 1993, John Major's government published a white paper entitled Realising our Potential which argued that greater commercialisation of academic research was needed to fuel economic growth. Since then a dizzying array of funding initiatives, high level reviews, and more white papers have pushed forward this agenda – meeting a mix of interest and resistance from academics. In a bid to accelerate this, in 2009 the Brown government gave ministerial responsibility for both science and universities to the newly created Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. From this platform, and with public sector cuts at the top of the Cameron government’s agenda, it was a short step to the latest round of initiatives.

But problems with this agenda have been clear for some time. In general, direct commercial funding of a research study increases the likelihood that the results will be favourable to the funders. Evidence of this problem comes from academic research in a range of sectors including pharmaceuticals, food and tobacco [1]. For example, a 2003 study reviewing 370 clinical trials of a range of pharmaceuticals found that an industry favourable result was three times more likely from industry funded research than others. A 2007 study reviewing 192 clinical trials of a specific class of drugs called statins found a twenty-fold increase in the frequency of an industry favourable outcome when such funding was present.

One way in which this bias – known as sponsorship bias – happens is that funders tend to choose scientists who are already sympathetic to their viewpoint. Intentional distortion or suppression of data is much less common, although it does occur.

Another related problem is a lack of openness due to the use of commercial confidentiality agreements (including patents) and other intellectual property rights considerations. This can lead to delays in the publication of results, or even non-publication of results. One study of this problem concluded that publication of scientific results which are unfavourable to a funder takes on average two years longer [2].

Conflicts of interest among scientific researchers – especially financial interests – can also compromise the research process. There is limited monitoring of the problem so its true extent is unknown. Nevertheless, the SGR report highlighted that there was clear evidence of significant problems in the pharmaceutical sector.

But it is not just at the level of the individual research study where problems arise. With the move towards a more ‘business-friendly’ environment within universities, departments and researchers with strong industry links are frequently rewarded with more public funding. This leads to a fundamental shift in what research is carried out and what research is not. Scientific research with a near-term potential to deliver a technological product becomes more appealing than, say, broader research on the environmental and social problems related to new technologies. In general, applied technical work becomes better supported than ‘blue skies’ research. The SGR report outlines how various research trends within science nationally and internationally have mirrored commercial trends. For example, well-funded research relevant to food security has focused on the development of high-yield crops (such as genetically-modified crops) which can be patented, while the investigation of lower-cost agricultural options (such as agro-ecology) or social science research on wider problems of food distribution or poverty attracts much smaller sums. Similar imbalances can be seen in the health, energy or security sectors.

Problems also occur when research is released into public forums. The 'over-zealous' marketing tactics of pharmaceutical corporations when a new drug is launched are well-known are . Pfizer – the world’s largest drug company – was recently fined a record $2.3 billion for mis-selling pharmaceuticals in the USA. Also familiar are the tobacco industry’s attempts to misrepresent the scientific evidence on the health effects of smoking and the fossil fuel industry’s funding of ‘climate sceptic’ lobby groups to undermine confidence in the evidence of human-induced climate change.

Arguably, though, there is an even deeper problem. University research from across the natural and social sciences has shed much light on the failures of the current neoliberal economic system. Much research from environmental science has highlighted that ‘environmental limits’ exist to the rapidly growing consumption of natural resources and the ability of ecosystems to assimilate humanity’s wastes. One of the latest pieces of work concludes there are nine ‘planetary boundaries’, three of which the global economy is exceeding [3].

On the social sciences side, compelling evidence has been gathered that the levels of inequality present in industrialised nations – a consequence of pursuing the current economic model – are a major driver behind high levels of health and social problems, including depression, obesity and crime [4]. A synthesis of the academic research across these areas was provided by the UK’s Sustainable Development Commission (SDC) in its landmark 2009 report, Prosperity without Growth?. This highlights how the fixation with maintaining the current economic system – which is only stable when it is endlessly growing – prevents humanity from solving a range of urgent environmental and social problems. 

Thanks to public funding cuts the SDC closed in early 2011 - one cannot help concluding that its message was not welcome to the Cameron government. Meanwhile, universities are being pressed to put much greater priority on work which contributes to economic growth, while there is no clear funding stream for research which looks at alternative economic models, such as the steady-state economy. This looks very much like the government’s political bias in favour of the prevailing – but failing – economic system is fundamentally undermining the ability of the university to do what it can do so well – provide fresh insight into, and suggest workable solutions for, the full range of humanity’s problems. We urgently need to protect the independence of the university system.


References

1. Mejia R (2008). Taking the industry road. Nature, vol 453, p1138-9.

2. Giles J (2006). Stacking the deck. Nature, vol 440, p270-2.

3. Rockstrom et al (2009). A safe operating space for humanity. Nature, vol 461, p472-475.

4. Wilkinson R, Pickett K (2009). The Spirit Level. Penguin books.

About the author

Dr Stuart Parkinson is Executive Director of Scientists for Global Responsibility and co-author of the report, Science and the Corporate Agenda.