An article entitled “Public science for private interests: How MU agricultural research cultivates profits for industry” in a local newspaper examines the link between research conducted by plants scientists at the University of Missouri and funding they receive from private businesses. Corporations provide more than 14% of external funding to plant scientists, which is substantially more than any other departments on campus receive, with the exception of the school of medicine.
The article raises concerns about “a culture of industry influence” that can create a conflict of interest when private businesses give money to university scientists to do research. As stated in the article, “Agricultural companies build relationships with professors and extension personnel so they can learn what farmers need — and thus drive sales. Even some MU professors who take the money point out that companies give in order to benefit their own bottom line. Critics say such funding cultivates a culture of influence that tends to bend research toward company goals.” Because these public-private funding relationships have not received substantial scrutiny, the implication is that more oversight is needed.
The article also makes this point: “What’s not so clear is how the public benefits.”
I suppose if we think that business and private enterprise are not part of the “public” realm– that is, society — then the concern might be relevant. But if private business benefits, then doesn’t that count as a benefit to the public as well? Stated differently, why do we assume that a private benefit automatically creates a negative externality on others?
There are two general reasons why we might be concerned about private industry funding research at public universities. The first is offering money for research might bias or unduly influence the research and conclusions reached by researchers. The second is that offering money for research might crowd out other and perhaps more important research. Together these illustrate the nature of the conflict of interest.
Does offering money to researcher to conduct research bias their perspectives? Of course it does. Anytime a gift is given, a reciprocal obligation of indebtedness is created, regardless of whether individuals are conscious of the fact or not. Bribery is an example, but even small gifts “carry the risk of subtly biasing—or being perceived to bias—professional judgment” of people, which is why the American Medical Association has strict rules on gifts physicians can receive.
But why is the concern about bias creation limited only to money given by corporations to university scientists? Money certainly creates biases, but so does power, relationships, intellect, social status. I am just as concerned about the bias bureaucratic power — the ability of a government bureaucrat to affect the lives of people — creates as I am about the bias created by funding provided to university researchers by private industry.
University researchers face all kinds of biases. Some are related to their sources of funding, but others are related to their own perspectives and views of the world, and how they want to the world to be. For example, are university professors politically neutral? If not, then shouldn’t we expect one’s political opinions will affect their research? The extent that private industry funding creates biases should be balanced with the recognition that biases already exist. One bias is simply replacing another.
(This reminds me of an episode of the TV show Law and Order from season 8 entitled “Under the influence.” The district attorney, Jack McCoy, is prosecuting an intoxicated driver who killed three people. Realizing the judge presiding over the case has strong feelings about drunk drivers, McCoy’s assistant, Jamie Ross, wants to inform the defense attorney of the judge’s bias. McCoy tells her, “I’m not gonna tell him. Come on, Jamie, a judge with an agenda, this is news to you?”)
I think all sources of bias and influence in academia need to be identified and acknowledged, not just those created by funding offered by private industry.
Does offering money to researchers crowd out other potential research? Of course it does. If a plant scientist is conducting research funded by and benefiting Monsanto, then he or she will not have time to do research that might lead to other breakthroughs. Simply stated, there are opportunity costs in doing university research. If I spend time on research project A then I don’t have time to work on project B.
Presumably, the concern about private industry funding is that it crowds out research that scholars might otherwise be doing that can benefit a greater good, such as the environment, the disadvantaged, or others in society, not just profit-seeking businesses. But is private industry funding any different than grants or contracts offered to university researchers from other sources? Any source of funding can crowd out alternative research opportunities. For example, suppose the USDA gives a $300,000 grant to agricultural economists to forecast crop yields for the next 5 or 10 years. Wouldn’t this crowd out research on other agricultural economic problems the scholars could be doing? What about funding provided by private foundations, such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which gives millions of dollars to universities (as well as other organizations)? Scholars receiving Gates Foundation funding usually celebrate rather than downplay that fact.
Since any funding crowds out research, why are we so concerned about university research that benefits private, profit-seeking businesses? Universities already engage in activities that benefit private enterprise, such as training students to be competent employees. Many universities even tout how successful they are in placing graduates in employment. In my department, faculty research on entrepreneurship, business strategy, economic development, value chain analysis, contracting, and other issues that benefit businesses. What makes research funding by and benefiting business such a concern that it deserves special scrutiny?
The fact is, funding from government for basic research at universities has stagnated in recent years. Currently, as reported in a Science magazine story, the U.S. government share of basic research funding has fallen below 50%. If we value university research (we should), then perhaps we should be more supportive of increased funding from other sources, including private industry, even if it is not ideal or promoting research others find useful.
I think any research crowding out should be recognized, not just that created by private industry. If society wants or values research on a topic not of interest to private industry, then funding should be offered to faculty to do that research.
Should we scrutinize research at public universities funded by private interests? Yes, but not simply because the source of funding is from private industry.
No private industry funding was used in support of this post.