Ties to industry continue to grow

For research, U. shifts from reliance on federal funds

Senior Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 6, 2011

At the General Motors/Brown Collaborative Research Lab, Allan Bower, professor of engineering and co-director of the lab, oversees research on the properties of metals.

Working with corporate funding and working with federal funding are largely the same in terms of the freedom to choose the subject of research, Bower said. But his work, which aims to create products useful for vehicle frames and long-lasting batteries, can only be described as application-based. The lab’s motto is “From Atoms to Autos.”

As federal funding for research has stagnated and payoff from industry-funded research has grown by leaps and bounds, the University has sought to expand its relationship with corporations. Through corporate partnerships, Brown seeks not only to diversify its funding sources, but also to grow its presence as a research institution.

But the shift in funding priorities has proceeded quietly, without much comment from the campus community. While the University stands to gain valuable resources, expertise and employment opportunities for its graduates, it stands to lose something perhaps more important: autonomy.

Critics of increased corporate partnerships say that such funding often compromises an institution’s standards of academic integrity for publishing research, conflict of interest policies and the decision-making apparatus. In short, they say, as academia seeks further association with business, it begins to behave like a business itself.  

 A foot in the door

Bower’s 10-year-old GM lab, one of several of the University’s well-established corporate partnerships, aims to build computer models to predict the behavior of metals under a variety of conditions. The research may ultimately be influential in the development of alloys that are both strong and light.

“The interests of GM and Brown are closely aligned,” Bower said. “GM’s mission is to make money.”

“Companies need to do research, but not many of them have an in-house lab. This is a relatively inexpensive way for them to do it,” he added.

The lab’s success is evaluated on the quality of its research, not on the production of profitable products, he said, emphasizing the “basic” nature of its work.

Down the hill at the Institute for Computational and Experimental Mathematics, which is funded entirely by the National Science Foundation, corporations play a different role. Representatives from Google, IBM and Microsoft sit on the Scientific Advisory Board, the group tasked with determining the direction of ICERM research.

Corporate representatives have no unilateral power on the 14-person board, said Jan Hesthaven, ICERM’s deputy director and a professor of applied mathematics. “It’s a mistake to shut out large companies,” he said. “They recruit a lot of talent, and shutting out their perspective would limit the class of problems ICERM deals with.”

Brown also maintains partnerships with IBM and AT&T. Faculty can apply for grants from both the government and private corporations and are free to enter consulting relations with businesses. Part of the mission of the Rhode Island Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, a collaborative endeavor between Brown and the state, is to help professors, graduate students and alums turn their research into biotechnology and engineering startups.

The center has helped launch a number of businesses founded by professors, including MicroTissues, a venture led by a professor to use 3-D cell cultures for scientific innovation.

Diversification dilemmas

Industry funding for scientific research has risen nearly 8 percent each year since 1980, according to Jennifer Washburn, author of “University, Inc.,” which explores the growth in private funding for university research over the past three decades.

The Cold War space race launched the United States into an era of unprecedented public funding for research. In the half-century following World War II, federal spending for research and development dwarfed that of industry. Today, industry spends about as much as the government.

But the University still receives roughly 90 percent of its research funding from the federal government. Competition for this funding has increased dramatically in recent years. And though President Obama signed a spending resolution Nov. 18 to increase NSF funding by roughly 2.5 percent — to $7.03 billion — Vice President for Research Clyde Briant remains committed to moving away from the University’s reliance on government funds.

The federal budget increase will not likely impact long-term plans to diversify its funding sources. That goal, stated explicitly in the Plan for Academic Enrichment, aims both to decrease reliance on funding sources that may dry up and to increase Brown’s research prestige.

Administrators have worked in recent years to draw in companies interested in sponsoring research, Briant said. “All universities want to seek a diverse portfolio,” he said.

The University screens all grant applications for academic integrity violations. “From my opinion, as long as we protect the freedom of the faculty to do research, we’re protecting ourselves from that kind of problem,” Briant said.

The problem he speaks of is one characterized by corporate restrictions on research, conflict of interest concerns and aggressive control over patent rights.

Like others across the nation, the University of California at Berkeley knows these problems well.

Berkeley and BP

In 2007, when students and professors at Berkeley learned their school was the recipient of a 10-year, $500 million grant from BP to develop new sources of plant-based fuel, some were worried. The partnership, which created the Energy Biosciences Institute, was the largest to date between a public university and a private corporation.

The Associated Students of the University of California issued a statement proclaiming their “grave concerns … regarding the proposed maintenance of a certain physical space … within which BP scientists and employees can carry out activities in secret.”

But the UC system had been crippled by cuts to state funding, which had caused teacher furloughs, course cutbacks and tuition hikes. The funds provided a source of energy and optimism at a cash-strapped institution.

Flash forward three years to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the largest American natural disaster in recent history.

Berkeley students’ attitude toward BP deteriorated further — even after the company designated $500 million over 10 years for their Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative, which funded university research on environmental conditions in the Gulf after the spill. “We support the independence of these institutions and projects and hope that the funding will have a significant positive effect on scientists’ understanding of the impact of the spill,” BP’s former chief executive Tony Hayward said in a statement.

But the research initiative’s peer review process was questionable. Scientists not receiving BP funding were in many cases blocked from entering research sites. And BP demanded affiliated s
cientists not publish their findings for three years.

Students and professors at Berkeley led widely publicized protests, criticizing the university’s acceptance of funds from a company that both caused environmental devastation and failed to fully cooperate with scientific research of it.

“Our bottom line is the public good, and their bottom line is profit,” Ignacio Chapela, associate professor of environmental science at Berkeley, told the Associated Press in July 2010. “There comes a point where those positions are irreconcilable, and I think that point is now.”

A heavy hand?

The BP protests highlight a key controversy surrounding industry funding for research: the influence of corporate interests on published results. The exercise of that influence — be it encouraging scientists to alter results or refusing researchers the right to publish — often constitutes a violation of the norms of academic integrity. But in today’s increasingly competitive scramble for research funds, such concerns can be marginalized.

“I wouldn’t want to do work that I couldn’t publish,” said Bower, head of Brown’s GM lab. “But funding size is more important than the restrictions.”

Bower said he ultimately could not speculate as to whether he would accept a large grant with attached publishing restrictions —  “The University wouldn’t let me take such a grant, so this conjecture is a little beside the point,” he said.

But even when corporate influence is not explicit, critics say it can be pernicious.

Corporations often have the freedom to choose the focus of research, directing a researcher toward a path he or she otherwise would not pursue. The University’s recently instituted tenure changes, which increase the importance of research, can only serve to increase the temptation for young Brown faculty to pursue research interests that align with corporate interests, and are therefore more likely to find funding. Bower said he would not be researching metals if not for the GM/Brown lab.

The availability of corporate funding could cause so-called “blue sky” — fundamental or basic — research, with no foreseeable applications, to one day fall by the wayside. Many argue it is this basic research that has led to most of the major advances in the sciences and, ultimately, provided the base for most profit-generating inventions.

The Guardian published emails earlier this year sent from BP executives discussing ways the company could direct scientists in their research on the Gulf. “What influence do we have over the vessels/equipment driving the studies vs. the questions?” wrote Russell Putt, a BP environmental officer, in one email.

A representative of BP declined to comment on the emails except to say the company has appointed an external board to direct the long-term research program.  

Have your cake and eat it too

Andrew Gutierrez, professor emeritus of entomology at Berkeley, has a history of clashing with corporations making inroads into academia. His own research has been stifled for decades by corporate interests, he said.

Gutierrez studies ecological mechanisms to halt the spread of invasive species. But today, after dramatic state funding cuts, Berkeley’s Department of Entomology, its Division of Biological Control and its Department of Plant Pathology — which supporters argue have all created billions of dollars in benefits to residents of California — are gone.

Gutierrez was lucky — he was shunted sideways to the Department of Environmental Science. Many of his colleagues were not.

Gutierrez believes those departments were cut due to the nature of the knowledge they provided. Ecosystem-based knowledge is not patentable, he said.

On the other hand, research in the fields of molecular biology and genetic engineering earns the University royalties of an impressive scale.

Corporations that own biotechnology patents often will not allow researchers to work with their materials unless certain conditions — for example, prohibitions on publishing findings for several years — are specified in contracts.

Genetically modified seed appears in crops “from cotton to soybeans to corn,” Gutierrez said. “How can you find out what’s going on — how those organisms are interacting with their environment — without researching them? But if you experiment on a company’s seed without their permission, they could sue you.”

Many say such hoarding of research and development rights is antithetical to the aims of a university.

“One of the traditional goals of university-based research is to disseminate knowledge, to get other people working on and investigating the same thing so that results can be challenged or corroborated,” said Luther Spoehr, senior lecturer in education. “How can you do that if some people insist on keeping information to themselves?”

When Mark Skolnick, a professor of genetics at the University of Utah whose research was federally funded, discovered a gene for hereditary breast cancer in 1995, the university licensed the discovery to his startup company, Myriad Genetics. The company then aggressively restricted external research on the gene.

Professors may own or have a stake in companies partnering with their universities on their research, a practice especially prevalent in biotech fields. This arrangement raises certain questions: What constitutes a conflict of interest? Can professors petition for university partnerships with their own companies? Can professors serve as CEOs of companies without compromising the integrity of their research?

The government has made multiple attempts to regulate conflicts of interest at universities in the past two and a half decades, with varying degrees of success, according to Washburn.

But professors who choose to distance themselves from corporate interests may struggle to support their research. “How do people who don’t buy into this paradigm get funded?” Gutierrez asked. “The answer is, they mostly don’t.”

Research funding: a history

Partnerships between higher education and business have a lengthy past, extending back to the mid-19th century. Back then, there were two models for corporate-university relations, according to Adjunct Assistant Professor of History Paul Lucier: the individual consultant and the consulting laboratory. Professors might charge a fee for consultation with private individuals or analyze samples in their university laboratory. “These relationships were short-term, based on trust and informal. There was no written contract,” Lucier said.

All this changed around the turn of the century, when General Electric offered to hire a full-time chemist who had been consulting for the firm.

“This was the first instance where an American company hired a PhD to do research which leads to commercial products,” Lucier said. “There’s a change of relationship. Instead of a consultant, the physicist is an employee.”

The federal government did not enter the picture until the middle of World War II, when policymakers, hopeful that cutting-edge technology might help the U.S. win the war, instituted a system of federal grants for scientific research that eventually morphed into the NSF. But from the beginning
, federal contracts were “careful to specify that the government was purchasing the research itself, not any anticipated outcome or finding,” Washburn wrote.

The government remained the main source of scientific research funding until the 1970s. With the emergence of a knowledge-driven economy, university and corporate interests became increasingly enmeshed, leading to what some commentators have called the birth of the “corporaversity.”

The Bayh-Dole Act of 1980 allows universities exclusive patent and licensing rights to inventions on federally funded projects. Universities can patent and market those inventions, the royalties from which they then recoup.

In other words, the Bayh-Dole Act not only provides universities further incentive to produce patentable inventions, but also encourages professors to develop personal ties with businesses.

Once universities obtain patents on inventions, they can license those inventions to whomever they choose, including companies owned by faculty or in which faculty have a stake. Those companies then develop the inventions for commercial use, earning royalties for both the university and the researcher. In this way, knowledge becomes a commodity with a monetary, rather than societal, value.

Brown’s legacy

The University has largely managed to sidestep issues related to controversy over funding sources. Compared to its peers, Brown has historically been on the more conservative end of receiving and seeking corporate funds, according to Hesthaven, ICERM’s deputy director.

“Maybe that’s why we’re so poor,” joked Bower, who noted that thanks to the University’s “army of lawyers,” it often takes over a year to get an intellectual property agreement drawn up for an industry grant.

But the interests of corporations and free dissemination of research have collided at Brown in several notable cases. In particular, the case of Associate Professor of Medicine David Kern in the mid-’90s and the case three years ago of Professor of Psychiatry and Human Behavior Martin Keller, who was chair of the department at the time, have attracted considerable media attention.

Kern was placed under scrutiny by the University for speaking out against dangerous working conditions at Microfibres, Inc., a Rhode Island-based producer of nylon textiles and a donor to Brown-affiliated Memorial Hospital. Conducting medical research on the factory’s workers, some of whom had developed life-threatening lung conditions, he discovered what he believed was a new lung disease.

When he tried to publish his findings, which could have implicated Microfibres in a potentially disastrous lawsuit, he was told by the associate dean of medicine and research there was “no way” he could publish without written company approval and instructed to immediately withdraw his abstract. Kern published his findings anyway. He was fired almost immediately.

Keller, who resigned as chair of the department in April 2009 but still works at the University, was implicated in a pharmaceutical company scheme to gain federal approval for the use of the antidepressant Paxil, manufactured by GlaxoSmithKline, on children and teens by publishing a scientifically compromised study demonstrating the drug’s utility. Keller was paid royalties to sign on as a primary researcher on that study, which was allegedly generated by a company ghostwriter.

Between 1990 and 1998 alone, Keller had brought in more than $8.7 million in research funding from pharmaceutical companies, including GSK.

Representatives from Brown’s Office of the Vice President for Research declined to comment on either the Kern or Keller cases. Brown’s conflict of interest policies have remained, by the University’s own admission, remarkably liberal. Brown faculty are allowed to have interests in companies for which they are receiving funding and are allowed to sit as CEOs of corporations.

“The perception or reality of a conflict needs to be disclosed so it can be managed,” Briant said. “We expect our faculty to be having conflicts of interests. There’s nothing wrong with that. As long as they disclose them, we are able to manage them in a way such that those conflicts don’t hinder the University’s goal of disseminating research.”

Some professors voiced the opinion at the Nov. 14 meeting of the Conflict of Interest Review Board that the University should go further to loosen language in the conflict of interest policy to encourage faculty to form their own businesses and collaborate with industry.  

An agenda for the future

As industry funding for research increases, universities are beginning to behave less like ivory towers and more like businesses.

The transition toward prioritization of industry funding at Brown was made without fanfare and without controversy after enactment of the Plan for Academic Enrichment 10 years ago. Since then, the University has failed to deconstruct its changing relationship with government and industry in any meaningful way. The two high-profile cases did not prompt officials to reexamine conflict of interest policies or the grant application process, according to Briant.

That being said, ties between corporations and universities are not intrinsically compromising.

“The problem is not university-industry relationship per se. It is the elimination of any clear boundary line separating industry from commerce,” Washburn wrote.

Hesthaven agreed. “If controversy arises, it arises because people didn’t do their homework before funding started,” he said. “You have to take greed out of the equation. Research integrity must be as if it were federally funded. Contracts cannot interfere with the way a university works. But if a controversy arises, well … we all know situations where a prenup is not such a bad idea.”

But Gutierrez and others emphasize maintaining a strict separation between university and industry interests is useless without addressing the change in the way universities have begun to perceive their roles.

“It’s difficult to do things in the public interest when they conflict with the corporate interest. And when that corporate interest is embedded within a university, that’s a disaster waiting to happen. But it’s happening now,” Gutierrez said. “I can’t see any way now out of this hole we’ve dug for ourselves. I can’t see how to remove that corporate interest from academia.”

Spoehr retains a grim optimism. “Once there’s money to be had, there are always people who want to have it,” he said. “But there have been tensions between different views of what a university should be since — well, since forever.”

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