Business cash skews science

March 28, 2003

The academic integrity of UK research is at risk as the government tries to wean researchers off state support in favour of commercial income, the Royal Society said this week.

Royal Society members, who held their annual alumni meeting on Tuesday, fear that the government's drive to increase university-industry collaboration on research could lead to scientific results becoming biased.

Patrick Bateson, the society's vice-president, said that commercial opportunities were already affecting the choice of research topics. He said that scientists were leaning towards projects with short-term financial benefits instead of concentrating on long-term public need.

Professor Bateson said: "We want to counter the trend towards more and more funding from industry. We want to push in the other direction from government."

Professor Bateson said that many scientists were not aware of the potential pitfalls of corporate funding and that the effects of commercial influence on research could be subtle.

He said that universities urgently needed to consider how to maintain model standards of scientific conduct and he called for a clear code of conduct in universities and tougher negotiations on commercial contracts.

He said: "I'm sure this advice is not generally available. This is something people have hardly started to think about."

Society fellow Sir David Weatherall, the founding director of the Weatherall Institute of molecular medicine at Oxford University, said: "For medicine it's a way of life to be supported by the pharmaceutical industry.

If you've been looked after by these companies, unconscious bias is dangerous."

Sir David said that universities had to wake up to the issues and ensure they had proper systems in place to monitor funding streams coming into departments from industry and government.

He said: "There are problems - perhaps it's inevitable as things have moved so fast in the past five years - and it's now time to stand back and deal with them."

The director of knowledge transfer at King's College London, Caroline Quest, told The THES that universities were relatively ignorant of the financial interests of their academics.

She said: "It is in most universities' financial regulations that this information should be held but very few institutes have put that into practice. At King's we are just starting."

Ms Quest said it was imperative that all universities were aware of any potential conflicts of interest and put policies in place to ensure the integrity of their research.

But Sir David King, the government's chief scientific adviser, felt that a register of interests might be intrusive.

He said: "If there's a scientist just carrying out his or her normal business and occasionally they receive grants from different companies, I don't think that in any way means they are beholden to those companies or biased."

He said concerns such as those raised by Professor Bateson were worth considering but stressed that this must not be allowed to undermine the energising effect of commercial partnerships.

"What we mustn't lose sight of is the tremendous excitement that arises from working at the coalface of research but at the same time finding there are real-world applications for what you're doing," Sir David said.

Chris Harrison, the intellectual property manager at the University of East Anglia, argued that Professor Bateson's comments did not give enough credit to scientists.

He stressed that while the overwhelming message from the government was that universities must secure more funding from industry, institutions were not simply responding to obligation.

Dr Harrison said: "When you look at the mission of doing science it is to benefit the public. And the only way to get things out to the public is via the commercialisation route."

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