Claire Polster: Resisting – Not Regulating – University/Industry Links

Claire Polster: Resisting – Not Regulating – University/Industry Links
Who owns knowledge?
October 24-29 2005

Nowadays, nobody thinks that university/industry links, and particularly university involvement in scientific research for or with business, are unequivocally good things. There have been far too many problems and scandals resulting from these research collaborations, the most famous, but by no means only, ones being the Olivieri and Healy scandals, where researchers were sanctioned for putting people's health over industry profits. Notwithstanding this consensus, people still disagree about two things. These are the nature of the dangers posed by these links to the public interest and how best to deal with them. Proponents of these links claim that their dangers to the public are minimal. They stem from a few bad corporate apples trying to exercise undue influence over vulnerable academics, (and perhaps also from a few unscrupulous academics), and they can be easily mitigated through various forms of regulation, such as conflict of interest guidelines and provisions that limit corporations' power over the researchers and research they help to sponsor. Opponents such as myself believe that the dangers that stem from university/industry links go far deeper than this: ultimately, these links transform the very nature and purpose of the university, so that rather than public serving institutions, which use public funds to serve a variety of societal needs and interests in a plurality of ways, they act more as and eventually become private serving institutions, which use public funds to serve their own needs and interests and those of paying clients. This transformation, which is far more harmful to the general public than is the occasional scandal, can only be mitigated by severing university/industry links - not by regulating them. Indeed, more than simply ineffective, a strategy of regulation is harmful because it diverts our attention from this more fundamental transformation of the university, and thereby helps to entrench and intensify it. In the few minutes that I have here today, I want to address the transformation of our universities that stems from their links with corporations and what this means for you. And I want to urge you to adopt a strategy of outrightly opposing, rather than merely regulating, these links.

In order to see the more serious threats posed by university/industry links to the public interest, you cannot look at these links at the level of individual and isolated cases, as proponents of regulation do. Rather, you have to look at the cumulative and systemic effects of these links on universities. I don't have time here to give you a complete picture of the systemic effects of these links, but let me give you three examples of their impacts.

First, these links dramatically transform university knowledge production. They both directly and indirectly skew the selection and design of particular research projects, and ultimately the academic research agenda, toward industry needs and interests. The shift in biology away from organismic or ecological biology and toward the financially lucrative area of molecular biology is a good example of this change. These links also transform how research is done by introducing new norms and practices into the knowledge production process, such as increased secrecy and competition in research. And they transform the ways in which and conditions under which academic research is used, so that rather than a public good that is freely shared with all who can benefit from it, university research is increasingly being privatized and commercialized and thus made accessible only to those who are able and willing to pay for it.

Second, corporate links produce changes in the more general nature and operations of the university as a whole, as they both require and encourage universities to adopt values and practices that predominate in the business world. This shift is most clearly reflected in the erosion of collegialism and democracy in the university, as administrators centralize more power, by-pass established collegial structures and processes, and make more decisions in secret - often in the name of better serving corporate clients. However, it is also reflected in many other places, such as in the corporate language that is being adopted by our universities, in the displacement of academic by economic criteria in the allocation of institutional resources, and in the new practices and criteria for evaluating and rewarding academics which place growing emphasis on entrepreneurial activities of all kinds.

Thirdly, and most seriously, corporate links are turning our universities into knowledge businesses in their own right. Increasingly, universities and the academics within them are getting involved in lucrative entrepreneurial activities of their own, establishing commercial development offices, selling ringside seats to leading-edge research, setting up spin-off companies and smart parks, etc. And rather than small scale ventures that are peripheral to the activities of academics and universities, these initiatives are consuming more and more of their money, effort, time, and other resources.

Taken together, the overall impact of university/industry links is to remake universities in corporations' image. These links are transforming universities from one kind of institution into another, that is from public serving institutions into private serving institutions or knowledge businesses. This transformation or corporatization of our universities is a much more serious development than are the occasional scandals that those who support regulation are concerned about, and it is - and will - be far more harmful to the public interest. How so?

Among many other things that time prevents me from addressing, corporatization reduces the public's access to the results of university research, as more and more of this knowledge - whose production we largely subsidize - is becoming the private property of individuals and corporations. Corporatization may also reduce the quality of academic research as well as its usefulness to the general public, given that it is increasingly oriented to meeting industry needs, which are not the same as, nor necessarily compatible with, the needs of other groups, such as small scale farmers, aboriginal people, people in poverty, etc. At the same time that our universities become less and less useful to more and more of us, corporatization also renders our universities less trustworthy and reliable, as it encourages administrators and academics to put private interests ahead of the public good. Thus, for example, we have universities attempting to renew - not just take out, but renew - patents on life saving drugs in order to keep their profits high, and we have administrators and academics silencing critical researchers and research through marginalization, harassment, and outright firing. Ultimately, corporatization threatens to leave our society without a disinterested source of expertise to which we can turn for advice on important social, economic, and political questions, such as the impacts of genetically engineered foods or the safety of various drugs and treatments. This poses very serious threats to our quality of life in the present as well as in the future.

Note that none of these problems, let alone the more general transformation of our universities, is addressed, much less resolved, by a strategy of regulating university/industry links. On the contrary, in directing our attention toward identifying and eliminating sources of scandal, this strategy advances and institutionalizes the university's corporatization and the many harms that flow from it. Whether by default or design, I think of the strategy of regulation as the piece of meat that is used to distract the guard dog at the front of the house while robbers break in through the back door. We must resist the temptation to try to regulate corporatization and instead turn our energies toward stopping it, as it is not scandal but rather the loss or theft of our public serving universities that is what's truly at stake here.