Jennifer Washburn: Universities For Sale

Jennifer WashburnJennifer Washburn: Universities For Sale
Academics are exploiting weak conflict-of-interest policies and cashing in on their research

Most of us place enormous faith in our universities. We trust that they are autonomous, independent institutions committed to education, scholarship, academic freedom and the production of knowledge free from the influence of special interest groups. Right?

Wrong. In the last 25 years, the United States has given birth to a market-model university, one where professors increasingly work “for hire.” Just last week, the Wall Street Journal reported that a major academic study — which found that antidepressants were safe and effective for pregnant women — was tainted by undisclosed conflicts of interest.

Apparently, although the study itself was financed by the federal government, most of its 13 authors — including many prominent academics — also served as paid consultants to manufacturers of antidepressants. None of these financial ties were made public.

Reports like this have proliferated in the last decade. Today, it is common for professors to moonlight as consultants for drug firms. They receive generous stipends to join company advisory boards. For a nominal fee — anywhere from $2,000 to $5,000 — some professors will even agree to be named as authors on journal articles ghostwritten by the drug industry and published without disclosure of company involvement.

Editors at top medical journals have warned that such commercialism threatens to undermine the integrity of academic science, but the blurring of academia and commerce continues.

It’s not just medical professors who have such conflicts. The new commercialism also involves law and business professors and academics in many scientific disciplines. It even affects administrators, such as Chancellor Marye Anne Fox of UC San Diego, who is a director at three corporations (two medical firms and a chemical company). In the last year alone they paid her cash and stock worth at least $339,260, according to the San Diego Union Tribune.

And the universities themselves, eager to share in the profits from research being done on campus, are getting in on the act. In recent years, changes in federal patent law have allowed universities to behave more like commercial enterprises. They now run their own patent offices and venture capital funds and industrial parks, and sometimes have equity interests in the companies that do the research, causing new institutional conflicts of interest.

Industry money represents a small percentage of overall university research funding (the bulk of which comes from the federal government), but the number of professors who receive supplemental income from industry is continuing to grow. Last week, the San Jose Mercury News reported that more than a third of Stanford University’s top administrators, department heads and other leaders have outside financial interests related to their research. These include stock options, royalties, consulting fees, etc.

Even more worrisome, seven of the 10 faculty members who sit on Stanford’s conflict-of-interest committee — charged with oversight — have financial connections to medical companies.

The pharmaceutical industry has certainly made the deepest inroads into academia, but commercial conflicts are hardly confined to medicine.

Consider Exxon Mobil’s unusual relationships with Stanford. In 2002, Stanford signed a 10-year, $225-million deal with Exxon and other energy companies to fund a Global Climate and Energy Project, or GCEP. At the time, Exxon Mobil was pushing the U.S. government to reject any mandatory curbs on greenhouse gases; it also continued to question whether human use of fossil fuels causes global warming, despite an overwhelming scientific consensus to the contrary. Instead, it called for more research.

Shortly after the deal was signed, Exxon ran advertisements on the Op-Ed page of the New York Times celebrating its research alliance with the “best minds” at Stanford. One ad suggested that the scientific debate about global warming is ongoing: “Although climate has varied throughout Earth’s history from natural causes, today there is a lively debate about … the climate’s response to the presence of more greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.”

Remarkably, this ad was signed by Lynn Orr, the professor heading up GCEP, and it carried the official Stanford University seal. Many observers found the university’s blatant endorsement of Exxon’s PR campaign shameful.

Current academic conflict-of-interest policies are weak and vary enormously from one institution to the next. Each university is afraid to tighten its rules for fear that this might drive talented faculty (and industry dollars) to other schools with more lax policies. But until the top U.S. research universities collectively adopt one rigorous, uniform policy, their autonomy will continue to erode.

Commercial Alert, 21/07/06