TBED’s Role in the Commercialization of Academia

Perhaps most state and local technology-based economic development (TBED) professionals are not aware of a debate going on within academia, but some of the finger-pointing is directed toward you.

America’s institutions of higher education are undergoing a tremendous transition as the image of an independent and objective Ivory Tower morphs into a structure more closely resembling the modern corporate research facility.

The debate centers on whether or not this change is a positive one. Proponents applaud universities and colleges becoming more relevant in strengthening America’s competitive position in a global innovation economy — and more efficient or accountable in the process. Opponents point to increasing conflicts of interest, profit-driven decision-making, and corporate influence in curricula content and design as weakening academia’s ability to encourage critical thinking, new ideas, spontaneous innovation and free scientific discovery.

The shift toward more business involvement in universities and colleges began more than 100 years ago with athletics but has accelerated and spread, according to Derek Bok in Universities in the Marketplace: the Commercialization of Higher Education, since federal and state government policies first adopted in the 1980s encouraged stronger industry-university research partnerships and commercialization of university-generated technologies.

A former president of Harvard University and dean of the Harvard Law School, Bok points directly to the success of three actions by federal and state governments over the past two decades as among the principal causes for the debate:

* Passing the Bayh-Dole Act, which facilitated university ownership and licensing of inventions derived from federally funded research, state and federal programs;
* Creating state and federal programs, beginning in the 1980s, that encourage and subsidize university-industry collaboration; and,
* Enacting state tax credits to spur increased industrial investment in university-based research.

Bok writes, “Public officials intent on economic growth are undoubtedly pleased with the vigor universities have shown in placing their discoveries and expertise at the service of private industry. By all accounts, corporate investments in academic science have yielded a handsome return in new products and improved technology.”

Increased business involvement with universities has brought tremendous results. Bok warns, however, there are limits to how far a business approach can extend within the university structure. Given states’ declining shares of support for higher education, the need to identify alternate funding sources may cause some schools to consider business alliances that could compromise their missions. The challenge lies in achieving an appropriate balance, Bok asserts.

The corporate impact on collegiate athletics is widely recognized and most often viewed negatively, Bok holds, while commercial influence on scientific research is still evolving and holds the same negative potential. He points to three areas of growing concern:

* Increased secrecy, withholding or delaying research results to capitalize on patenting or licensing opportunities or avoid negative implications for existing commercial interests of the university or faculty researcher;
* Conflicts of interest, whether real or perceived, arising from researchers’ financial or professional relationships or affiliations potentially influencing the results of funded research and clinical trials; and,
* Corporate sponsors exerting or attempting to exert control over the design of research projects, the interpretation of the results, and editorial control of content in the publication of findings.

While not elucidated further in the book, scientific research is the area most affected by the efforts of state and local tech-based economic development officials. Numerous states have developed programs to encourage, facilitate and, in many cases, financially support closer relationships between industry and academia. So, too, have several federal agencies, such as the Department of Defense, the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation, invested millions of dollars to strengthen corporate-university collaboration.

A concern for tech-based economic development professionals could be how well any of these public programs have adopted policies and procedures to avoid compromising the pursuit of science and discovery in the manners outlined by Bok.

The issue may not have arisen yet within most programs promoting government-university-industry partnerships. Bok writes, “Most universities have not done all they should to protect the integrity of their research. Many have not even shown that they are seriously concerned about doing so. As in athletics, officials have been willing to cut corners and wink at potential problems in an effort to gain additional resources. Unlike athletics, however, commercialization of research is still relatively new, and universities are not yet bound irrevocably to indefensible policies. Only time will tell if they manage to do a better job of maintaining appropriate standards for science than they have done in upholding academic value on their playing fields.”

After discussing the ways commercial interests have influenced athletics, scientific research and education, Bok presents strategies for protecting each aspect of higher education while maximizing the benefits of business involvement. To protect research, he recommends the following:

* To address conflicts of interest, “universities should flatly prohibit their scientists from performing research on human subjects if the work is supported by companies in which the researchers have significant financial interest, whether from consulting arrangements, gifts, retainers, or stockholdings.”

For research not involving human subjects, universities should “insist that professors with substantial and continuing ties to any organization with an interest in the results disclose the nature of those ties or funding sources in any publications or official testimony containing their views.” Also the university, faculty or staff should disclose financial interests to potential funders to limit conflicts from arising.
* Avoid allowing funding from a single company or group of companies from representing too significant share of a department’s research budget or which comes with too many controlling strings (such as seats on committees allocating funding). And,
* Develop stronger relationships with angel and venture capitalists in lieu of creating university-owned entities to encourage the the commercialization of faculty research.

Bok closes with some discussion of the need for active involvement of trustees, presidents and deans, faculties, universities collectively and the public sector to work together to capture the benefits of stronger industrial research collaboration without sacrificing the larger goals inherent to higher education.

Universities in the Marketplace: The Commercialization of Higher Education and other related titles can be purchased directly from SSTI’s bookstore:

Academic Research and Development Expenditures: Fiscal Year 2001 is available at:

Copyright State Science & Technology Institute 2003. Information in this issue of SSTI Weekly Digest was prepared under a cooperative agreement with the U.S. Department of Commerce, Economic Development Administration. Redistribution to all others interested in tech-based economic development is strongly encouraged — please cite the State Science & Technology Institute whenever portions are reproduced or redirected. Any opinions expressed in the Digest do not necessarily reflect the official position of the U.S. Department of Commerce.

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