Leader: A better defence than a few damp fluffies

May 4, 2001

The arrogant disregard with which global corporations treat national governments is nothing new, as our business and management book reviews show. The clash of interests was identified decades ago. But privatisation has moved new swaths of economic activity from state to private hands. The damage is compounded when weak governments, desperate for funds for media-intensive election campaigns, become beholden to corporate benefactors.

This is most blatant in George W. Bush's America, where debts incurred in winning a contested victory are being paid back in corporate favours. But Britain is not immune. Small wonder then that the public distrusts politicians. Last week's poll published by the University of East Anglia on attitudes to foot-and-mouth disease showed ministers as the group seen by the British public as the least likely to tell the truth. In such circumstances, universities are needed more than ever to provide a more robust bastion against corporate bias than can be offered by assorted fluffies and spikies corralled by the police on London streets in pouring rain.

But universities' position is easily compromised. They are increasingly controlled by the state, yet more than ever dependent on others for money. University managers are tempted to join politicians in urging researchers, who might have hoped their university would defend their academic freedom, to bring in the money on any terms. Too few universities round the world share Harvard's luxury of being able to walk away from interfering donors.

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