Are ethics adrift in third-stream work?

Recession may encourage knowledge exchange 'at any cost', workshop hears. Hannah Fearn reports

March 18, 2010

Academics should expect to "come under pressure to sell knowledge as a means of keeping going" during the recession, a professor of corporate responsibility has warned.

Richard Ennals, who is based at Kingston University, also cautioned that if scholars acquiesce to that pressure, they risk "selling their birthright" as academics.

"Maybe what we should be doing is slowing the third stream," he told fellow participants in a workshop organised by the Association of University Research and Industry Links (Auril).

The session earlier this month was one of three being held to develop the first code of ethics to govern third-stream work, which focuses on the commercialisation of ideas.

Although researchers must routinely demonstrate that they have considered ethical issues before they carry out their work, at present there is no parallel process governing the way in which knowledge exchange staff broker new relationships and share information with partners.

At the first of the ethics workshops, members of Auril thrashed out some of the issues that they believe must be tackled by a future code of conduct.

Deborah Lock, executive director for enterprise at Kingston, said knowledge exchange was "one of the most powerful tools in the world".

But she warned that "it can be the most damaging as well as the most rewarding thing. How can we be sure that the people we're working with share the same values as our institution? Do we just wash our hands of it?"

Professor Lock said there was no formal guidance in the area, and that a code of practice for professionals was urgently needed.

"Have we moved to knowledge exchange at any cost?" she asked. "We need to look at this. Can we be sure that the knowledge we unlock is not being used for damage?"

Ann Buchanan, director of the Oxford Centre for Research into Parenting and Children and fellow of St Hilda's College, Oxford, said Auril members could learn from the experiences of the Economic and Social Research Council, which re-wrote its ethics framework for researchers last year.

Questions about the use of new technology, privacy and anonymity and the archiving of data are raised in any university knowledge exchange project, she said.

"Just because you can do something doesn't mean you should. We can push a button and share data with everybody all around the world. But we need to consider whether these people have given consent for their data to be shared with everyone else.

"Once you start linking data internationally, there are major issues. We need to think if there could be risks to researchers or participants from demonstrating impact by sharing findings, for example, with the media," Professor Buchanan added.

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