Commercial funds cause fear for integrity

January 30, 1998

Academic autonomy at Oxbridge is being threatened by the institutions' growing reliance on external and commercial funding, academics have warned.

This week, the Campaign for Academic Freedom and Academic Standards has written to Oxbridge vice-chancellors Colin Lucas and Alec Broers, warning that "issues of wide public concern lie behind the ways in which multi-funder institutions are being managed".

In Oxford, CAFAS says there are conflicts of interest at the Institute of Molecular Medicine, which is funded jointly by the university, the Medical Research Council and the Wellcome Trust.

"The problem is that the funders have, naturally, interests of their own, which may be in conflict, or come into conflict, with the academic research purposes of such institutions," CAFAS said.

CAFAS said that there had been problems at the institute "in achieving consensus among funders about what they are seeking to achieve".

CAFAS has asked Oxford vice-chancellor Colin Lucas: "Can the university protect those who fear that if they do not toe a given line their own posts or the future of the institution may be set at risk by the removal of funding?"

At Cambridge, where the institutions links with industry are often a source of pride, the problem seems to be acute. Disquiet at Cambridge came to a head this week when the annual reports of the General Board and the governing council were discussed by academics at the University Senate.

The General Board report celebrates Cambridge's "weddings" with industrial funders. "Cambridge scholars do not work in isolation," the report said. "Their many and growing links to industryI shape the academic programme."

The Cambridge Council's annual report said that the university has a "commitment to the creation of an environment that promotes industrial collaboration". "In such cases, the potential industrial partner is seeking a long-term special working relationship and is prepared to pay a premium in recognition of the quality of Departmental Research."

Gill Evans, Cambridge lecturer and policy secretary for CAFAS, told the Regent House that there had been an "infection by commercial priorities" at Cambridge.

"Can it be a purely academic judgment when, for example, a pharmaceuticals company funds research into a new drug, does not like the results obtained by the academic research and causes them to be suppressed?" she asked. "It happens."

She targeted Cambridge's pro vice-chancellor, Roger Needham, who is director of the Microsoft laboratory. "One of our pro vice-chancellors retains his high and influential office while he heads the Microsoft enterprise as its employee. I have told him frankly that this does not seem to me to be on."

Professor Needham said that Dr Evans was "mistaken". "I stay strictly away from any negotiations between Microsoft and the university," he said. "I have also taken unpaid leave from my chair."

Professor Needham also defended his university. "My feeling is that if you are grown-up about these things and the companies involved have a reasonable attitude, then it's OK," he said. "I suspect Gill Evans may not realise just how much care is put into not getting these issues wrong. But as the late Willy Sutton said when asked why he robbed banks - 'That's where the money is'."

Professor Needham said that having multi-funders was actually in the interests of academic freedom. "Having multiple ways of getting your research funded is actually a strong part of academic freedom. You shouldn't depend on the judgment of any single group of people. One man's focus can be another man's blinkeredness."

Oxford University declined to comment.

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