More cash, but at a price

David Robinson says Canada has much to teach us about the commercial imperative in academia and its dangers

May 7, 2009

As governments around the world struggle with the downturn, there has been a renewed focus on the role higher education and research can play in the recovery. In last month's Budget, Alistair Darling announced a reallocation of £106 million of research funding towards areas of "predicted economic potential". His comments echoed those of John Denham, the Universities Secretary, who recently said that "universities need to focus more on supporting the economy".

The economic benefits of investments in the sector are well documented. However, these benefits can be fully realised only if policymakers recognise that good research doesn't emerge from political diktats. Indeed, as the Canadian experience reveals, dangers arise when governments bypass the scientific community and bind research too closely to industry needs.

Compared with the US, more than twice the percentage of Canada's university research is funded by industry. This has accelerated since 2002, when the Government and the country's university presidents signed an unprecedented "innovation agreement", whereby public funding for academic research would be doubled, with universities in return agreeing to triple the commercialisation of their research.

The result has been a significant increase in funding, but at a price. There has been a drastic reorientation of large swaths of scientific research. The obsession with commercialisation has narrowed the agenda and undermined the integrity and independence of the academy. And it ignores a vital truth: that the world's most important scientific discoveries typically have come from basic research.

Commercialisation has often distorted research priorities in ways that do not serve the public interest. Medical researchers have warned that the focus on market outcomes has encouraged a misguided emphasis on research that produces minor modifications to existing care, rather than fundamental explorations of illness.

Increased research collaboration with industry, actively encouraged by the Government, has provoked a number of prominent scandals. Foremost among them is the case of Nancy Olivieri, a University of Toronto clinician, who gained national attention when her research at the Hospital for Sick Children led her to believe that a new drug treatment for a blood disorder posed dangers to some patients. Apotex, the firm that made the drug and sponsored the trials, disagreed. When Dr Olivieri said she would inform participants of her concerns, Apotex scrapped the trials, withdrew funding and threatened legal action if she went public.

Conflicts such as this arise from a clash of cultures. Private-sector research is secretive, as firms understandably attempt to guard their commercial interests. Academic research is open and collaborative. Findings are shared with the academy as part of the collective advance of knowledge.

Meanwhile, as the economy sours, the Canadian Government is becoming more aggressive in targeting funding at projects that it believes will produce the biggest bang for its buck. In effect, it is trying to pick the winners and losers in university research, ignoring the views of the academic community.

For example, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council has been directed to focus funds on economic development, management, business and finance at the expense of the arts, history, sociology, philosophy and literature. However, in light of recent corporate malfeasance, perhaps there is some wiggle room for a creative grant application from criminologists?

Before the UK embraces commercialisation, it must learn from the mistakes made in Canada and other countries. As John Polyani, Canada's best-known scientist and a Nobel laureate, has remarked, universities are the sole institutions in our societies that have a mandate to pursue knowledge for its own sake. If they are to serve the public interest, they must be free from government and industry interference.

David Robinson is associate executive director, Canadian Association of University Teachers. He will speak at the University and College Union's international conference, Challenging the Global Market in Education, on Saturday 9 May in London.

www.ucu.org.uk/globalmarket.

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