Row rages over 'dirty money'

May 27, 2004

Fresh controversy over UK universities' commercial links broke out this week as staff in business schools complained of growing threats to their independence while a leading philosopher said academics should not be afraid of taking "dirty money" to fund research.

A study to be published next week reveals a crisis of identity among academics who feel caught in a tug-of-war between desire for free inquiry and demands to win corporate sponsorship to bolster tight university budgets.

The findings follow comments from Gordon Graham, regius professor of moral philosophy at Aberdeen University, who said that universities should be open to tainted money. He told a meeting of the National Conference of University Professors that it was only the probity of research itself that mattered.

Professor Graham said: "Why don't we just go for dirty money? Let's take conscience money."

He said that those who criticised Nottingham University for taking research funding from the tobacco industry, or Oxford University for accepting an endowment from the grandson of a Nazi-sympathiser, were misguided.

Professor Graham said: "While it is understandable that an institution should be concerned about its public image, in the end it must take whatever steps it needs to protect and promote its essential purposes."

Dismissing ethical codes of conduct as ineffectual, Professor Graham argued that the best way to control "rogue science" was through the rigorous peer-review selection process used by authoritative academic journals.

He said: "Funders may be able to offer inducements to skew the results of research work, but they cannot use their resources to manipulate the academic and intellectual authority of publishing journals."

Professor Graham said that Andrew Wakefield's controversial research linking autism and the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine should not be dismissed because it was associated with a pressure group. The relevant factor was whether it was scientifically rigorous.

A survey published next week shows that academics in British and Canadian business schools have been forced to give a higher priority to requirements for more industry-backed applied work.

The survey, based on interviews conducted by Cardiff University researchers with 68 professors, researchers and lecturers over a five-year period, finds that many have accepted that academic autonomy may have to take a back seat.

When asked to rank a set of values seen as a "means to an end" in their work, the academics placed "maintaining independence from the business world" at the bottom of their priorities - below "working in a business environment", "being paid by performance" and "being involved with non-academic professional bodies".

Out of a list of values seen as goals in themselves, more traditional ones of achieving excellence in research and teaching ranked second and third below "having a fulfilling personal life". But "following a rational scientific approach" was not seen to be as important as "securing high financial reward", and "emphasising practical techniques" ranked above "emphasising theoretical concepts".

David Stiles, a lecturer in strategy and marketing at Cardiff's Business School who led the research, said it was clear from the results that academics were feeling "pulled in different directions", and that traditional scholarly values were losing ground.

He said: "It's like a tug-of-war between conflicting values. There is great concern that academics are being pressured to bring research money in from whatever source at the expense of what they see as maybe more important academic research.

"Those in more senior positions feel those pressures the most, because many are being judged on their ability to attract outside funding, and their career prospects may therefore depend on their success in that area."

The findings of the survey, published on Tuesday in the British Journal of Management , also reveal growing concern that MBA courses are being used as cash cows by institutions, with big class sizes taking priority over maintaining standards.

"Academics felt that the emphasis of these courses was very much on how to maximise income for the university, with little regard for protecting quality," Dr Stiles said.

anna.fazackerley@thes.co.uk

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