Jennifer Washburn: Selling Out. Shouldn't we be pleased that universities are increasingly business minded?

Jennifer Washburn: Selling Out. Shouldn't we be pleased that universities are increasingly business minded?

Elias Zerhouni, director of the US National Institutes of Health, last week took one small step along the road to repairing the tainted ethical reputation of government science. New conflict-of-interest rules that he announced will at last bar NIH scientists from moonlighting as consultants for private industry. The move follows a series of investigations by The Los Angeles Times and the US Congress that uncovered extensive financial ties - many previously undisclosed - between agency scientists and the drug and biotech firms that have a financial stake in the outcome of their research.

This is reassuring news, but it is only a start. The government must now turn its attention to the $20 billion or so in research money it disburses each year to American universities. This public money provides 60 per cent of their research funding. Yet commercial entanglements have grown commonplace in academia, and what was once a culture of autonomous research has morphed in recent decades into something more closely resembling "University Inc".

The US government has threatened several times to apply tougher conflict- of-interest rules to academics who receive grants, but it has always succumbed to pressure from university leaders to allow universities to regulate themselves. Despite promises to put their own house in order, the rules now in place are lax and public disclosure of financial conflicts is still not mandatory.

You don't have to look far to see just how corporate-minded American universities have become. It is now standard practice, for example, to encourage staff to spin off profit-making companies from their research. Many schools run their own venture-capital funds and industrial parks, and patent their professors' inventions to maximise royalties. Star professors consult for the very firms that make the products they are studying.

It was not always like this. While American universities have traditionally had a more utilitarian bent than their European counterparts, they also vigorously defended academic autonomy and nurtured a research culture distinct from private industry. The two spheres were considered to have different roles to play in advancing science: one dedicated to long-term research and the open dissemination of knowledge, the other to proprietary research and the extraction of profits.

This changed abruptly in 1980, when Congress passed laws granting universities automatic patent rights to inventions that came out of publicly funded research. The aim was to speed the transfer of academic knowledge to industry, but it also unleashed a dangerous profit motive into the heart of academia. Universities were further propelled into forging alliances with industry by declining public spending on higher education. In 2001, the most recent year for which figures are available, industry spent $2 billion on academic research, making it the fastest-growing segment of university budgets. This trend is not confined to the US: industry-led research is fast becoming commonplace in universities everywhere, in particular the UK.

The consequences of blurring the boundary between the academic and business spheres are serious. Curiosity-driven "blue sky" enquiry is being pushed out to make way for commercial research. Disciplines that make money, study money or attract money are showered with institutional resources and lab space. Meanwhile, physics, philosophy and other fields that have trouble supporting themselves like this are left to scrape by.

The openness that used to characterise university life has given way to a culture akin to that of the business world. In a 1997 survey of 2167 members of life sciences departments, 34 per cent of professors reported being denied access to research results or products generated by their academic peers. Universities are so focused on generating profits that they frequently impose onerous licensing restrictions on basic knowledge.

When researchers at the University of Utah discovered a gene responsible for hereditary breast cancer in 1994, they did not make it freely available despite the fact that taxpayers had invested $4.6 million in the research. The university raced to patent the gene and granted monopoly rights to Myriad Genetics, a start-up company founded by a University of Utah professor.

If the government needs further convincing, stricter conflict of interest rules are also needed to prevent a dangerous imbalance between universities and federal science institutions. Many NIH scientists warn that Zerhouni's new measures could prompt scientists to leave for greener pastures in academia.

There's an obvious solution: apply conflict-of-interest rules to all publicly funded scientists. If we want to rein in the commercialism that is destroying our public research institutions, they must all be held to the same high standards.

New Scientist (reproducido en New America Foundation), 12/02/05