CONFLICTS OF INTEREST ON THE CAMPUS
For sale: US academic integrity
Private enterprise is much taken with education, especially the
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.
by IBRAHIM WARDE *
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
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 marginalises 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 of what 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 that "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 Centre
for Science in the Public Interest, have argued that "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
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 have become secondary. Heads of
universities are now assuming the role of travelling 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
criticise 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 maximise
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
A 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 privatise revenues and socialise
expenses (through the use of university administrative resources as well as
"free" student labour). 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 who
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 organisations" which provide the much-needed "plausible
deniability". Thus, at the time of the Microsoft trial, "independent"
research institutes secretly funded by the software giant churned 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 or breast implants, or the effectiveness of a drug, we can
see that it is not unusual for sponsored academics to fudge the data,
suppress unfavourable evidence, and otherwise "torture the numbers till they
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 privatisation. He had testified before
Congress on the merits of full-scale privatisation, 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
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 not have not stopped the more doubtful
practices, but they have guaranteed that science can proceed with a clear
* 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
5) Robert B Reich, The Future of Success, Alfred A Knopf, New York, 2001 (289
6) See "The fine art of giving", Le Monde diplomatique English edition,
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
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