Public interest comes before industry profits

March 30, 2001

The aims of science and business frequently clash. David Packham calls for an improved code of practice.

Earlier this month, the government announced that £15 million of public money was to be made available for a new round of Foresight-Link awards to fund research partnerships between businesses and universities. These are simply a recent manifestation of the policy of governments here, and in many western countries, directed (in the words of a recent white paper) towards "stimulating stronger university-based links (with industry) so that our science and engineering excellence is turned into successful and innovative products and services".

The research councils and the university funding councils must take serious account of "relevance to industry and other users". Following the radical shift of the centre of gravity of university science towards providing for industry, there have been increasing reports of problems. Some of these are concerned with vetoes on free publication of research results.

Last autumn, The THES published a report of the work of the Canadian researcher Geneviève Cardinal, who found a plethora of examples of secrecy clauses in research contracts being used to prevent publication of industry-university research results. One was the action of a pharmaceutical company aimed at preventing Nancy Olivieri, a professor at the University of Toronto, from publishing results that suggested a serious risk to patients associated with use of the drug Deferiprone for treatment of the blood disease thalassaemia.

James Brown, professor of philosophy at Toronto, commented on the case:

"Thanks to profit-driven private funding, researchers are not only forced to keep valuable information secret, they are often contractually obliged to keep discovered dangers to public health under wraps." Professor Olivieri will describe her experiences at a conference in London in May.

Many contracts in operation at British universities are no less restrictive and the consequences for open publication no less dire.

Another area of concern is conflict of interest. More than ten years ago, the New England Journal of Medicine warned of the danger of researchers "acquiring financial interests... (that) erode scientific objectivity and engender the loss of public trust". Last November, it published a series of special articles on the conflict of interest arising from the commercial dimension in medical and biomedical research, and concern was expressed that university-based investigators in the United States could still hold "stock and stock options... that may reasonably appear to be affected by the results of their clinical research".

I doubt whether the position in the United Kingdom is any different. These problems stem from a fundamental clash of values. On the one hand, the commercial mentality requires secrecy, on the other, the norms of science and the values of a university demand openness. Informal discussions with colleagues and full disclosure of experimental procedures and results are the norms of scientific activity.

This same tension can be seen in the different, even contradictory, expectations urged on universities by governments in the UK. On the one hand, the Dearing report and various white papers urge universities into bed with industry; on the other, the Nolan report on standards in public life properly insists that there should be no conflict of interest. The second of Nolan's "seven principles of public life" concerns integrity:

"Holders of public office should not place themselves under any financial or other obligation to outside individuals or organisations that might influence them in the performance of their duties." The duties of academics include openly expressing the truth.

What can be done? If the root of the problem is an incommensurability of values between commerce and universities, it cannot be evaded. The worst thing would be to ignore it, pretending that it did not exist. The tension needs to be explicitly recognised and structures introduced - for example, into research contracts and codes of practice for university-industry collaboration - that recognise and respect the legitimate interests of the two sides. These are live and important issues. They not only concern universities and science as a whole, but not least, have a significant effect on public confidence in science. The public, quite rightly, has become very suspicious of those, whether in government or industry, who use specially commissioned "research" to justify their own vested interests.

David Packham is senior lecturer at the Materials Research Centre, University of Bath. The Council for Academic Autonomy and the Council for Academic Freedom and Academic Standards are organising a conference on Corruption of Scientific Integrity - The Commercialisation of Academic Science at the British Academy in London on May 2. Details:

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