Raw material, tainted cash

July 17, 1998

In the knowledge-based, weightless economy developing around the world, research is the raw material for growth. Demand for ideas is huge and so is the response. The numbers of people employed in research, in universities and elsewhere, are growing fast despite ropy contracts and miserable salaries. Funders are swamped with bids.

The difficult bit is finding the money. To their shame, the Conservatives cut investment in the science base. The good news this week is that that is being reversed - even if the Labour government's legerdemain in including the Wellcome Trust's generous (40 per cent) contribution in the Pounds 1.1 billion increase is reprehensible.

But this will not end the pursuit of private funding, partly because the appetite is insatiable, partly because, if research is to be geared to the economy, universities have to engage with the commercial users of their work. Private funding for research is here to stay, a matter of mutual interest.

That does not make the relationship straightforward. As the net is cast wider it is bound to bring up fish some find unpalatable - tobacco companies (as with BAT funding the Medical Research Council), scions of German families that employed Jewish slave labour. Academic dislike of such involvements mirrors the public mood driving "ethical" investment funds.

Universities are right to think carefully about who they take money from and on what terms. After all, it is to them that society should be able to turn for impartial advice on anything from politics to infectious diseases. There is no point in having well-funded researchers if their findings are regarded as tainted.

What taints findings? Is it the origin of the money? Is it the motivation of the donor? Is it the strings that may be attached to a gift or programme of support? And then who should decide? And how? University managers have found out the hard way that in an institution with democratic decision-making, building support for controversial steps is essential and takes time.

So far, sensitivity about the origins of money for research has been at its highest in medicine and, arguably, at its lowest in engineering and the applied sciences, where defence contractors, the Ministry of Defence and others have rarely been questioned about their motives. In the cold war, as in hot wars, few (though those few were vociferous) had problems with the research base being treated as an arm of the state.

But now defence budgets are shrinking. Research is becoming a civilian, commercial matter. The commercial giants are increasingly involved in university work as described on page 16 and in Research (pages 26-). Smaller firms are also being encouraged to engage more closely with academic research, and cannot afford the Olympian approach of a Microsoft. They want quick answers.

The time is long overdue for thorough debate of the rules that should be applied to private funding of university work. Failing to be businesslike has meant this country has lost out repeatedly. The long line of awful examples from jet engines to monoclonal antibodies should have provided sufficient warning. The terrible case of the University of Southampton (page 1), hundreds of millions of pounds poorer than it should have been because of its failure to get paid for key work on fibre optics, shows that warning still unheeded.

It is essential to get the relationship right. What rules should govern acceptance of gifts and grants? Is any money so tainted that it cannot be acceptable on any terms? Are there terms that should not be accepted however spotless the source of funding? We would like to hear your views. Please join the discussion by emailing The THES at research@thesis.co.uk

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