The impact agenda still threatens research autonomy

Covid vaccine successes notwithstanding, researchers should remain wary of corporate capture, says Tahir Shah 

May 1, 2022
The shadow of a syringe
Source: iStock

The Covid-19 pandemic has underlined how private funders can collaborate with academic research institutions to deliver products, such as vaccines and testing equipment, quickly to the market.

That has been widely celebrated, prompting calls for research to become even more socially and economically impactful in future. Moreover, the UK’s second research excellence framework (REF) to include impact among its criteria will no doubt reveal how impactful research has already become when it reports its results next month.

However, amid all the euphoria, we would be wise to remind ourselves of an old warning about the influence of private sector funding on academic research

Supporters of the impact agenda – which has been adopted to a greater or lesser extent by funders around the world over the past decade – argue that it leads to purposeful research that is beneficial both to the economy and welfare of the society. It can also harness private sources of funding for collaborative projects, as researchers are pushed to work in close collaboration with private-sector and philanthropic organisations.

The requirement for research to reflect monetary and societal benefit is entirely reasonable. But it should not become a shibboleth that detracts from the main purpose of university research. For instance, there are whole branches of scientific enquiry, such as astronomy or palaeontology, which offer profound revelations but for which one cannot fathom any possible monetary benefit. We must be extremely careful that the impact agenda does not undermine their funding (their inclusion in wider “units of assessment” in the REF helps mitigate this risk, but the issue remains).

Moreover, what happens if the research stakeholders are primarily driven by a desire not so much for social welfare as for profit or for the furtherance of a particular agenda?

This is a particular peril in strategic areas, such as medicine, defence and information technology. It is well known, for instance, that the arms industry, which countries set up for their legitimate national defence and security, paradoxically needs conflicts to sustain itself. This is an example where the monetary interest of companies does not necessarily correlate with the societal interest; to see a return on a big investment in new military technology, defence firms must do what they can to stimulate demand – for which, they need conflicts. Fortunately, universities are rarely used for defence research, due to its excessive secrecy, but it does happen (in which cases, sight of REF case studies is confined to members of the judging panel).

Medical research, on the other hand, is a big source of private-sector funding for universities. And medical firms are also known to use their influence over health systems and governments to expand markets for their products. The veneer of academic respectability only aids those efforts – which, again, may not always be in the public interest. Although vaccination development efforts have been claimed to be a triumph (and certainly a lucrative one for many of the firms involved), there are many examples where products that are ineffective or downright harmful have been taken up by health systems.

The risks of corrupting research are particularly high in the case of prestigious higher education institutions, where the major business organisations invest most heavily. Those organisations do not spend big money on research areas that do not provide returns on their investments. Companies select areas that promise a financial return, wielding their influence over the experts and scientists in the prestigious academic institutions accordingly.

Moreover, the typical dominance of research by a relatively small number of firms makes distortion all the more likely. This is why the formation of networks of academic research institutions all funded by the same private organisations, especially in the strategic areas of research defined by the government, should be strongly discouraged. And any private-sector funding and involvement in research must be scrutinised vigorously to ensure that the academic institutions do not become dependent on private funders.

If public research support must be decided on the basis of economic and societal impact, then we should at least ensure that a larger weighting is given to collaboration with small and medium enterprises (SMEs), and new start-ups, rather than mega corporations and “philanthropic societies” run by business tycoons. Rigorous objective criteria must be included to assess potential conflicts of interest and negative societal impacts if a big corporation is a significant funder.

Undermining academic research autonomy will ultimately undermine the credibility of academic research and researchers. Further, when academic research becomes a business and academic researchers turn into businessmen, it is not just the university and its core wards that suffer the consequences; it can result in major harm to society at large.

However good next month’s impact case studies might look, the main driver of academic research must remain the creation of ethical knowledge and its wider dissemination for the greater good of the society – not profiteering and furthering the agendas of influential private funders. 

Tahir H. Shah is a consultant and professor of advanced materials and technical textiles at the National Textile University in Faisalabad, Pakistan, and a fellow of the UK’s Royal Society of Chemistry and Textile Institute.

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.

Related articles