Ibrahim Warde: For sale: U.S. academic integrity

Ibrahim Warde: For sale: U.S. academic integrity

Private enterprise is much taken with education, especially universities. In the United States the race to get hold of academic disciplines that bring in the money has already increased conflicts of interest between research and business. Under cover of a 'marketplace of ideas', the logic of the market could turn academics into entrepreneurs and endanger the unity of our universities.

In November 1998 the University of California at Berkeley signed a controversial agreement with Novartis, the Swiss pharmaceutical giant and producer of genetically engineered crops. In exchange for $25m to its Department of Plant and Microbial Biology (DPMB), the university would grant the firm first right to negotiate licenses on about one-third of the department's discoveries (including the results of research funded by state and federal sources). Novartis would also be represented on two out of five seats in the department's research committee, which determines how the money is spent. About half of the faculty members of the College of Natural Resources, of which the DPMB is a part, expressed concern that the deal would erode Berkeley's commitment to "public good research", and 60% feared it would impede the free exchange of ideas among scientists (1).

California state senator Tom Hayden declared that the deal "raises significant questions of whether biotechnology research primarily serves the interests of corporations and marginalizes potential academic critics at the expense of free inquiry and unfettered research".

Yet, by and large, the deal represents the new model of cooperation between corporations and universities. Since California's Proposition 13, which froze property tax and started a widespread "tax revolt" in 1978, state funding for education has started to decline. Changes were afoot at the federal level, too. In 1980 the US Congress, concerned about declining productivity and rising competition from Japan, passed the Bayh-Dole act, which for the first time allowed universities to patent the results of federally funded research. Subsequent legislation further encouraged corporations to fund academic research – through tax breaks among other things - and universities to licence their inventions to corporations.

With the end of the cold war, universities suffered more public cuts. Thus in 1987 Berkeley, which was once funded almost entirely by the state of California, saw the share of public funding fall to 50% of its overall budget, and to 34% in 1999. Buildings erected in the 1990s, such as the one housing the business school, were financed exclusively by private donations. The Haas family (heirs to jeans makers Levi Strauss) was its most generous benefactor, and saw to it that the school bore its name. A number of major corporations endowed faculty positions. Even the dean holds the position of "Bank of America dean". The state-of-the-art building of the Haas School of Business is plastered with corporate logos and all its rooms and even the tables and chairs – are adorned with plaques commemorating their donor - a company, an alumnus or a graduating class.

The market-model university.

This is the world that Harvard professors James Engell and Anthony Dangerfield call the "market-model university", where departments that make money, study money or attract money are given priority (2). Increasingly, universities are becoming two-tiered institutions with rich departments and poor departments, academic superstars and an academic underclass. For advocates of this new partnership, such as the Business-Higher Education Forum, a lobbying coalition of corporate and academic leaders, there is a long list of reasons why tearing down the walls separating the universities from the marketplace is a win-win proposition: corporate donations help build modern laboratories and finance cutting edge research; business can innovate while giving academic scientists a greater share of the financial rewards; corporations more than make up for the shortfall in public financing; students benefit through a variety of trickle-down mechanisms such as scholarships and research opportunities; corporate funding enables scientific breakthroughs, such as finding cures for deadly diseases, which benefit society as a whole; and the public at large, and even the government, benefit from attendant economic growth, increased corporate taxes, and individual and corporate philanthropy. Not everyone agrees with this proposition (3). One scientist says "the increasing pressures on universities to get into bed with industry are not always resulting in a good night's rest for either partner". Others, like Ronald Collins, director of the Integrity in Science Project at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, have argued, "science is losing credibility. Conflicts of interest, biased studies and secrecy are undermining science's reputation and its truth-seeking objective.

Scientist-consultants who are paid by industries but who serve as faculty professors frequently testify before Congress and federal regulatory agencies without pausing to reveal their industry connections. Science departments in public universities enter into multimillion-dollar contracts with private corporations, yet few details are revealed about the nature of such agreements. Medical and other science journals all too frequently publish articles without adequately disclosing even major conflicts of interest" (4).

Similarly, in his most recent book, Robert Reich, minister of labour in the first Clinton administration, criticises the impact of the "era of the good deal" on the world of education (5). The quest for knowledge, disinterested research and intellectual curiosity has become secondary. Heads of universities are now assuming the role of traveling salesmen and are judged primarily on their fund-raising abilities. Students at the most prestigious colleges see their studies as an investment that will open the door to networking and huge salaries.

It was once assumed that funding came with no strings attached. But in a far cry from the old model of philanthropy, corporations now expect to get their money’s worth - and then some. The logic of the "market-model university" assumes that whoever is paying the piper should call the tune. Recipients are expected to become apologists for donors (6). Nike recently announced that it would withdraw millions of dollars in financial support from three universities (Michigan, Oregon and Brown) because student groups had dared criticize the company's wages and working conditions, especially of children, in their factories in some of the world's poorer countries.

He who pays the piper

In the 20 years since the Bayh-Dole act was passed, industry funding for academic research has increased eight-fold and the number of patents produced by universities has gone up 20-fold. Universities themselves are beginning to look and behave like for-profit companies. Every research university has a technology-licensing office whose purpose is to maximize returns from royalties. In the last few years a number of universities, including Stanford and Chicago, have established internal venture-capital funds to bankroll commercially promising research. With the promise of new "delivery" systems for education (on-line and distance learning), universities are also racing to establish joint ventures with for-profit companies. In the words of Berkeley Public Policy professor David Kirp, "the hoary call for a 'marketplace of ideas' has turned into a grotesque double entendre" (7). Logical consequence is the appearance of a new academic type: the professor-entrepreneur who uses his academic affiliation as a launching pad for lucrative ventures. Despite full-time academic appointments, such academics often spend most of their time working on their private projects. Another unseemly aspect is the tendency to privatize revenues and socialize expenses (through the use of university administrative resources as well as "free" student labor). Yet though academic departments and students are often short-changed in the process, most universities look the other way. They look instead at all the financial possibilities that come with high-visibility academic stars - from the "overhead" paid to the university out of grant money to present or future gifts or bequests from such professors to their institutions. Perhaps the major problem with conflicts of interest involving academics that have a financial stake in the outcome of their research is that it distorts the policy process. Increasingly corporations operate under cover of "non-profit research organizations" which provide the much-needed "plausible deniability". Thus, at the time of the Microsoft trial, "independent" research institutes secretly funded by the software giant turned out "studies" meant to influence the public as well as the courts (8). And by looking at research on the health impact of tobacco, the "science" behind global warming of breast implants, or the effectiveness of a drug, we can see that it is not unusual for sponsored academics to fudge the data, suppress unfavorable evidence, and otherwise "torture the numbers till they confess" (9). An illustration of the policy impact of sponsored research is the case of University of Florida criminology professor Charles Thomas who for 20 years was the relentless advocate of prison privatization. He had testified before Congress on the merits of full-scale privatization, and his "expert" views were frequently quoted in major newspapers and moved the stock value of corporations involved in running jails (10). He turned out to have been on the payroll of private corrections companies all along, and was also as a significant shareholder in those companies. In January 1999 he received a $3m consulting fee over the merger involving Corrections Corporation of America. Following an investigation by the state of Florida Ethics Commission, he "denied wrongdoing" and offered to pay a $2,000 fine.

Academic disciplines that should in theory be concerned about the relations between universities and the marketplace pay scant attention to these issues. Departments of education are busy exploring the latest educational fads. The humanities, obsessed by multiculturalism, have "deconstructed" such concepts as "truth" and forfeited their right to defend disinterested inquiry. The social sciences are mostly preoccupied with quantification and abstraction. Business schools are cheerleaders for whatever generates profits.

So by default it is within the sciences themselves - and in publications such as the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) or the Lancet - that the most thoughtful research on conflicts of interest and other ethical issues is taking place. A worrying development occurred when the Los Angeles Times revealed that 19 out of the 40 articles published in the last three years in the "Drug Therapy" section of the NEJM had been written by authors with financial ties to drug makers. The NEJM is hugely influential, and it had taken a strong stand on medical ethics and established stringent ethical guidelines for its contributors. It was only after the Los Angeles Times report that the soul-searching began and an internal inquiry was held. Then it emerged that reviewers of new drugs had disclosed financial ties to the NEJM editors. It has been suggested that it was simply not possible to find reviewers without ties to pharmaceutical companies. At all events, Marcia Angell, the outgoing Editor-in-chief of the NEJM, published an editorial decrying the growing conflicts of interest in academic research institutions throughout the country (11).

The world of science is now going through what business schools did in the 1980s. A Stanford business school professor recalls that "in the early 1980s the faculty here started getting snotty comments about how they were contributing to greed on Wall Street and training modern day pirates and buccaneers. After a while it got hard to laugh off. So the faculty said 'Hey, let's just put an ethics unit in the curriculum. That'll shut everybody up'." Now we have ethics galore – ethical guidelines, ethics courses, ethics seminars. They may have not stopped the more doubtful practices, but they have guaranteed that science can proceed with a clear conscience.

IBRAHIM WARDE is Professor at the University of California, Berkeley; author of "Islamic Finance in the Global Economy", Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh, 2000

1. Eyal Press and Jennifer Washburn, "The Kept University", Atlantic Monthly, Boston, March 2000.

2. James Engell and Anthony Dangerfield ,"The Market-Model University: Humanities in the Age of Money", Harvard Review, May-June 1998.

3. David Weatherall, "Academia and industry: increasingly uneasy bedfellows", Lancet, London, 6 May 2000.

4. Ronald Collins, "Assuring truth in science a must", Baltimore Sun, 29 August 2000.

5. Robert B Reich, The Future of Success, Alfred A Knopf, New York, 2001(289 pp, $26).

6. See "The fine art of giving", Le Monde diplomatique English edition, December 1997.

7. David L Kirp, "The New U", The Nation, New York, 17 April 2000.

8. New York Times, 18 September 1999.

9. Marcia Angell, Science on Trial: The Clash of Medical Evidence and the Law in the Breast Implant Case, W W Norton, New York, 1997 ; Ross Gelbspan, The Heat Is On: The Climate Crisis, the Cover-up, the Prescription, Perseus Press, Los Angeles, 1998.

10. See Loic Wacquant, "Imprisoning the American poor", Le Monde diplomatique English edition, July 1998.

11. New England Journal of Medicine, Boston, 24 February, 22 June and 13 July 2000.

Reproducido en Comité de Ética en la Ciencia y la Tecnología (Argentina)