Clear ethical lines are needed for industry collaboration

Institutions must retain neutrality and academic freedom while working with businesses, says Max Lu

March 28, 2019
Man painting lines on a pitch
Source: Getty

It is ever more imperative for universities to work with businesses and industry, to drive economic growth and meet social and sustainability goals. In the UK’s case, its target of increasing its investment in research and development to 2.4 per cent of GDP by 2027, as part of its industrial strategy, will not be achieved unless this happens on a larger scale.

However, industry legitimately worries that academics are not interested in addressing its strategic priorities and needs, while academics legitimately fear losing freedom and scientific credibility. There are even fears among some scholars and commentators that increasing interdependence between universities and industry could see higher education being “sold out” if individuals are not given clear guidance on potential conflicts of interest.

There have certainly been numerous examples in recent years of ethically dubious practices in both academia and industry, with at least as many studies of academic bias as an outcome of industrial funding. There is ever-increasing pressure on academic researchers to win funding, publish papers and generate social or economic impact. In such a high-pressure environment, the conventional -laissez-faire approach to ethics and responsible conduct in higher education is no longer effective.

It is vitally important that universities retain academic freedom and neutrality while collaborating with industry or other sponsors, especially if our research is to maintain public support and wider strategic relevance. But how to achieve such a balance? Even with full disclosure of all possible conflicts, we each, as individuals, retain our filters that skew and colour everything that we perceive. And every funding body has its bias, however subtle.

I suggest that it is the institution’s responsibility to set clear and binding policies on what demands and expectations from funders are ethically and legally acceptable. The guidelines should also stipulate what constitutes a conflict of interest for individuals, and what transparent governance and communication mechanisms are needed.

The university should firmly rule out any funding with strings attached that could compromise academic freedom and integrity, while being flexible on other issues, such as ownership of intellectual property, the timing of publication and the rights to carry out future research work in the same area.

With regard to conflict of interest, I would advocate the zero-tolerance approach implemented by Stanford University in 2010, banning physicians employed by its medical school from accepting “industry gifts of any size, including drug samples” or from being paid by drug companies to deliver presentations on their products. Zero tolerance is useful because it leaves no room for confusion, unconscious bias or wilful ignorance.

A strong ethical culture is the long-term guarantee for maintaining academic freedom, neutrality and social responsibility. And this can arise only when firm expectations of academic integrity are worked into the fabric of an institution’s governance and regulation, supported and enacted at every practical level. At my own institution, we aim to make the bridge between our stated ethos of contributing to society and our actual research practice a strong yet flexible one, able to brook debate while establishing unassailable boundaries and ensuring that staff know where these boundaries lie.

To me as a scientist, ethics fundamentally means commitment to good science. As a sector, we should be able to prize good research above all things, with everything that this concept implies in terms of personal and organisational behaviour. The true value of research – and the future of the academy as trusted knowledge leader – depends on it.

Max Lu is vice-chancellor of the University of Surrey.

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Draw clear ethical lines for industry collaboration

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