Money must be chased but with new guidelines

October 23, 1998

For centuries universities have provided a socially useful means of laundering grubby money. Suppression of the monasteries, piracy, slavery, American robber barons' ruthless exploitation: all generated profits that have supported scholars and enriched academic foundations. Guilty money was washed clean.

But now we live in more complicated times. The scale and cost of universities today means that however well endowed, however "private" in constitution, all are highly dependent on state funding. Furthermore, their intimate relationship with knowledge-based industries means that it is no longer possible or desirable to try to separate commerce from learning. In the Unites States and Britain particularly, and increasingly elsewhere, all universities are in pursuit of private money through fees, donations, grants and contracts to augment public funds.

Indeed public/private partnership is one of the on-messages of our day and British universities are being explicitly required to take their brains to market. Next month's Confederation of British Industry conference will doubtless call for ever greater co-operation. Links are already close and extensive (back page). Public funding is being used to encourage them and, when the Council for Science and Technology's study groups report next year, this gearing is expected to become closer.

The University Challenge Fund and the Joint Infrastructure Fund combine taxpayers' and charities' money. Lottery funding requires private contributions. Pharmaceuticals company SmithKline Beecham is this week holding its fifth science policy symposium on what the United Kingdom wants from research in the science base and health service. Science minister Lord Sainsbury, himself both businessman and philanthropist, is encouraging public debate on future bioscience developments; and on Monday the Royal Society holds a meeting on intellectual property and venture capital.

All the pressures are for academics to engage more closely in public and business life. Standing apart is apt to attract reproof rather than praise, as in Downing Street adviser Geoff Mulgan's article Whinge and a Prayer in this week's phoenix issue of Marxism Today (right). Government departments expect to be involved with ongoing research they fund in ways at least as prescriptive as commercial companies. The funding council also has plans (page 4) to pay more for what it sees as relevant.

The row over the Food Standards Agency, the unedifying blame-dumping in the BSE inquiry, the government's ambivalence over genetically manipulated crops, the agreement that defence industries should be given access to the highly successful European Eureka programme (Research page 30), all testify to the increasingly tangled web of relationships.

Nor are these complicated relationships confined to company/institution dealings. University staff are engaged in fund-raising, in contract negotiations and in handling public money.

Some people dislike the whole business of public/private collaboration and would prefer to work in fully publicly funded (and well-equipped and resourced) institutions providing their wisdom free to the outside. Desirable or not, this simple model is no longer on offer. Hankering after it is no solution.

What is now urgently needed is a proper review (perhaps by Lord Neill) of the rules and regulations governing these new relationships. Dividing lines between public funding, charitable activity and commercial work are becoming tangled to the point where the integrity of individuals is the only defence against improper muddles. Robust guidelines for the handling of money from many sources are urgently needed. The Northcote Trevelyan rules for the public service, which have served us well, are no longer appropriate. A new settlement is needed that will allow public service and the commercial and the charitable worlds to interact fruitfully and transparently. The sooner this is tackled the better.

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