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Marks cited in article on corporate influence in The Chronicle of Higher Education

by Rebecca Bennitt Mar 06, 2018

This article originally appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education 


How to Protect Your College’s Research From Undue Corporate Influence


By Paul Basken      February 25, 2018   

The upsides of research ties between companies and universities are legendary. Silicon Valley, Route 128, Research Triangle, and their numerous superstar companies with academic roots are leading examples. Annual benefits are now measured in the billions of dollars, thousands of patents, and hundreds of start-up companies.

But corporate bias is a known risk to scientific integrity. And as universities find themselves increasingly enticed by governmental budget court industry cuts to court industry dollars, their eagerness for private-sector partners appears to be outpacing their willingness to set firm rules on ethical boundaries and to investigate when things go wrong.

It’s a problem that some university leaders, such as Hunter R. Rawlings III, a past president of both Cornell University and the Association of American Universities, have been struggling with.

"Universities tend to be competitive with each other — it’s one of the great positives of American higher education," Rawlings said. But, he added, referencing the ethical downsides: "That makes them at least somewhat reluctant to find common ground on things like this."

Yet Rawlings and other advocates of greater safeguards argue that both individual researchers and their institutions as a whole need to put a greater priority on heading off scandals that could undermine a college’s reputation, promote bad science, or even cost lives. While there’s little consensus on what should be done, the proposals may offer administrators ideas for ways to curb corporate influence on their campus.

Report after report by such groups as the AAU, the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities, and the Association of University Technology Managers have chronicled the clear financial and social benefits of corporate involvement in university research.

In its latest report, covering 2016, AUTM counted 8,208 federally funded inventions, 7,021 U.S.-issued patents, and 1,024 new start-up businesses. For 2015, the AAU and APLU tallied more than 700 commercial products. Corporate-aided innovations that have now become staples of everyday life include Doppler weather radar, developed at the MassachusettsInstitute of Technology; magnetic-resonance imaging technology, developed at the State University of New York; and time-release capsule technology, developed at the University of Kansas.

Outside such glowing reports, however, are other compilations, involving corporate-‐ university partnerships with less-shiny outcomes.

The University of Colorado’s medical school in 2015 said it would return a $1-million grant from the Coca-Cola Company after revelations that the money had been used to finance a research and advocacy group that urged people to focus more on exercise than on how many calories they consume.


As universities find themselves increasingly forced to court industry dollars, their need for private- sector partners may corrode their ethical boundaries. Experts have proposed some guidelines.
Outside such glowing reports, however, are other compilations, involving corporate-‐ university partnerships with less-shiny outcomes.
The University of Colorado’s medical school in 2015said it would return a $1-million grant from the Coca-Cola Company after revelations that the money had been used to finance a research and advocacy group that urged people to focus more on exercise than on how many calories they consume.

That same year, The New York Times reported that while academic scientists have long been recipients of business grants for agricultural research, they now also take industry-backed trips to Washington or other destinations to lobby on behalf of their benefactors. They continue to conduct research, the newspaper reported, but in some cases, their published findings have been drafted by industry consultants.
In a related, an activist group, U.S. Right to Know, has taken legal action to compel the University of Florida to make available records detailing its faculty members’ relationships with companies that produce genetically engineered seeds and pesticides.

In a related case, an activist group, U.S. Right to Know, has taken legal action to compel the University of Florida to make available records detailing its faculty members’ relationships with companies that produce genetically engineered seeds and pesticides.

One of the highest-profile examples involves the prescription painkiller OxyContin and other prescription opioids. A series of university experts helped private manufacturers promote the use of such drugs, including almost half the experts on an influential 19- member panel organized in 2011 by the National Institute of Medicine. Pain experts later described the work of the panel as giving an exaggerated and misleading sense of the need for such powerful narcotics. The prescription-opioid problem has caused some 200,000 deaths in the United States since 1999, and the opioid epidemic overall is blamed for $500 billion a year in economic losses.

Despite such examples, the competition for research dollars means that corporate partnerships will surely continue to grow. The federal government’s support of university research and development shrank 11 percent over five years, from $34.6 billion in 2011 to $30.7 billion in 2016, according to the most recent figures from the National Science Foundation. Corporate support of university research and development, meanwhile, jumped 26 percent overt hat same period, from nearly $2.9 billion in 2011 to $3.6 billion in 2016, according to the NSF data, which are adjusted for inflation.

Measured as a share of all university research spending, federal support fell from59 percent in 2011 to 51 percent in 2016, while the business share rose from 5 percent to 6 percent.

Any solution, Rawlings said, absolutely cannot and should not involve walling off such companies from university campuses. "We are certainly in a knowledge economy now," he said, "and whatever way you look at it, universities have driven more and more innovation, which in turn is driving the American economy to a great extent."

Finding a better way to navigate corporate support has been difficult. Five years ago, Harvard University held a conference about the issue, and Rawlings was among the participants pleading for university presidents to get together and at least set some new minimum standards for university-industry research relationships, and to encourage the sharing of best practices.

Pushing back was the event moderator, a former Tufts University president, Lawrence S. Bacow. Bacow, now the incoming president of Harvard, told the conference that it’s clear that donors expect something in return for their money, and he said there’s not much that can be done about that other than to be careful in each situation.

No single set of rules or guidelines will work for all universities, he said, even those as similar as Harvard, MIT, and Tufts. "I don’t think we’re going to solve this as a problem," Bacow predicted. "This is something which we’re going to be managing, and we’re going to be managing in perpetuity."

Others, however, are pushing ahead. Some suggestions include toughening financial-disclosure standards for researchers with corporate ties; bolstering laws giving the public access to university records; placing more public-interest and non-profit members on university boards of directors; and, of course, increasing federal support for university research. There have also been repeated calls for universities to work harder to discourage faculty use of low- quality academic journals that don’t vet the findings they publish.

And, more fundamentally, universities are increasingly being asked to look at financial conflicts of interest from an institutional perspective, rather than as a problem to be handled at the level of individual faculty members. That would mean a university, or a department or school, looks at all of the outside funding it receives and considers how that relationship fits within the mission the institution or school has set for itself, said Sandro Galea, dean of public health at Boston University and a vocal critic of the current state of university research practices.

Some universities, such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, require complete freedom to publish any work arising from company-sponsored research. Some academic units, such as the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard, require that all corporate gifts be unrestricted. But such high ideals are not universal. MIT officials have said their policies have cost them potentially lucrative sponsorships — something less-renowned universities might not be willing to endure.

Instead, a typical university approach to corporate-faculty relationships involves requiring the researcher to disclose the circumstances, then develop a case-by-case set of guidelines for ensuring that any payments don’t affect scientific outcomes. But definitions — of what constitutes a conflict and an appropriate mitigation — can vary widely. Institutions often have rules that make only indirect attempts at preventing financial conflicts, such as caps on the percentage of time faculty members can spend on outside activities, such as serving on a corporate advisory board.

The AAU helps its member institutions by convening discussions and sharing experiences with best practices. But the association of leading research universities has not formally gathered its leaders to work on setting standards. Another group, the independent University-Industry Demonstration Partnership, publishes a guidebook covering financial conflicts, though its advice centers mostly on  the need for researchers to know existing institution-specific rules. The American Association of University Professors has guidelines that also focus largely on awareness and summaries of popular approaches, rather than examinations of where changes should be made.

Such offerings may largely reflect the assessment of leaders such as Bacow: Good conflict- of-interest policies are important, but many institutions still experience problems despite having a baseline set of rules. That suggests the specific details of the rules may be less important than the character and judgment of the people involved as both researchers and enforcers.

Putting a value on culture, however, is easier to say than do. Rawlings said that any temptation among university leaders to see priorities other than the academic can put them on a path toward institutional corruption.

Galea also acknowledged that there aren’t any straightforward solutions. But even if many universities don’t feel they could ban all restricted gifts, he said, they could take corrective actions such making sure that industry money represents a minority share of funding, accepting independent, external peer oversight, and perhaps establishing blind trusts to limit direct influence.

The goal of a bigger-picture approach is also being pursued by Jonathan H. Marks, an associate professor of bioethics, humanities, and law at Pennsylvania State University. Universities often express confidence in the integrity of their research teams and the work they produce. What they may be overlooking, said Marks, director of the bioethics program at Penn State, is that funding often determines what questions are even asked.

A key example, he said, is the beverage industry’s efforts to distract attention from the harmful effects of sugar by pushing for studies that focus on such problems as fat intake, or studies that examine levels of physical activity rather than problems associated with consuming high-calorie sodas.

Universities must realize that companies often approach them with the idea of creating a sophisticated web of influence, Marks said. "It is understandable that corporations and trade associations should seek to develop these strategies," he said. "But it is the responsibility of universities and governments to take steps to insulate themselves from this influence."

One approach for concerned university leaders, he said, is to just speak out, through means as simple as writing more letters to newspapers explaining why, ultimately, public funding of research is so important. But, Marks said of university leaders, "they have generally chosen not only to accept but to seek out industry funding and partnerships with great public enthusiasm while keeping whatever reservations they might have to themselves."