The tarnished reputation of university research

As merely a dull-witted heart attack survivor with a relatively recent interest in scientific research (and only because it can influence how my doctor and yours practice medicine), I like to think that university researchers are a noble lot. But in an essay called The Dawn of McScience, Dr. Richard Horton delivers a surprising indictment of academic research.

In his New York Review of Books column about the book called Science in the Private Interest, he cites its author Dr. Sheldon Krimsky of Tufts University School of Medicine, who lumps universities in with industry like so:

“Universities have become little more than instruments of wealth.

“This shift in the mission of academia works against the public interest. Universities have sacrificed their larger social responsibilities to accommodate a new purpose – the privatization of knowledge – by engaging in multimillion-dollar contracts with industries that demand the rights to negotiate licenses from any subsequent discovery.” 

An example of this kind of contract, explains Dr. Horton, is the $25 million deal struck in 1998 between the University of California at Berkeley and Novartis, a Swiss pharmaceutical giant and producer of genetically engineered crops.

“The contract gave a select group of Berkeley biologists $25 million for research along with access to trade secrets, principally in genetics. In return, Novartis got first dibs on UC Berkeley’s potentially lucrative discoveries.  The money also granted Novartis unprecedented representation – two of five seats – on the department’s Research Committee which determines how the money is spent.

“Universities have reinvented themselves as corporations. Scientists are coming to accept, and in many cases enjoy, their enhanced status as entrepreneurs. But these subtle yet insidious changes to the rules of engagement between science and commerce are causing, in Krimsky’s view, incalculable injury to society, as well as to science.”

The UC Berkeley/Novartis deal provoked vigorous and often angry debate on campus and in the media, including coverage in Atlantic Monthly called The Kept University in which Dr. Steven Rosenberg of the National Cancer Institute was quoted:

“One of the most basic tenets of science is that we share information in an open way. But as biotech and pharmaceutical companies have become more involved in funding research, there’s been a shift toward confidentiality that is severely inhibiting the interchange of information.

“The ethics of business and the ethics of science do not mix well. This is the real dark side of science.”

And consider for a moment the emergence of resources like Retraction Watch, a news website entirely devoted to listing scientific papers that have been published in journals but then essentially UNpublished when the journal became aware of research methodology problems.  Retraction Watch has been described in the journal Bioethics like this:

“These days, when you come across a news item flagging flagrant abuses of scientific misconduct such as data falsification, data fabrication, or plagiarism, you will come ever more frequently across a superbly run internet site called Retraction Watch, informing their ever-growing number of readers of the latest academics caught out in unacceptable research shenanigans.”

The Atlantic piece asked if commercial forces should be allowed to determine a university’s educational mission and academic ideals by unduly influencing scientific research:

“In higher education today, corporations not only sponsor a growing amount of research, they frequently dictate the terms under which it is conducted.

“Professors, their image as unbiased truth-seekers notwithstanding, often own stock in the companies that fund their work. And universities themselves are exhibiting a markedly more commercial bent. Most now operate technology-licensing offices to manage their patent portfolios, often guarding their intellectual property as aggressively as any business would.”

Meanwhile, back at UC Berkeley, Dr. Horton explained that an independent Michigan State University review of the Novartis/UC Berkeley deal found that the damage done to the University of California’s premier research campus – from internal infighting to a tarnished reputation – simply was not worth the money.

The reality is that academic administrators throughout North America are counting on the private sector for more research funding, in part because public support for education has been dropping. Dr. Horton adds:

“Science has long been ripe for industrial colonization. The traditional norms of disinterested inquiry and free expression of opinion have been given up in order to harvest new and much-needed revenues.

“When the well-known physician Dr. David Healy raised concerns about the risks of suicide among those taking antidepressants like Prozac, his new appointment as clinical director of the University of Toronto’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health was immediately revoked.

“Universities have reinvented themselves as corporations. Scientists are coming to accept, and in many cases enjoy, their enhanced status as entrepreneurs.”

The subtitle of Dr. Krimsky’sbook (Has the Lure of Profits Corrupted Biomedical Research?) may scare some readers away, warns a 2003 review published in the New England Journal of Medicine: 

“Even as the book takes an uncompromising stance on the need for scientific integrity, its case studies sprinkled throughout demonstrate that the main characters – universities, large companies, and some academics – at times cloak monetary and career-advancing priorities in scientific clothing.

“Profit-oriented motive introduces a new set of priorities, motivations, and cultural norms into university laboratories and academic investigations. One university official is quoted as saying:

“The only thing wrong with tainted money is there t’aint enough of it.”

Is there a way out of the dilemma? Dr. Krimsky looks to the landmark work of the late sociologist Robert Merton for guidance in translating biomedical advances into beneficial products without allowing the money to distort the purity of scientific inquiry.

In the 1930s, Dr. Merton proposed a series of four standards by which science should be evaluated:

  1. “Universalism” refers to the objective nature of science that transcends national, cultural, or institutional boundaries.
  2. “Communalism” stands for public ownership of the fruits of scientific investigation, holding that each scientific advance is built on past discoveries and should not become the private property of a person or institution.
  3. “Disinterestedness” requires scientists to perform and to interpret their work “without considerations of personal gain, ideology, or fidelity to any cause other than the pursuit of truth.”
  4. “Organized skepticism” calls upon scientists to suspend final judgment on a discovery until all possible facts are at hand.

Here’s a glossary of other research and marketing terms for you.

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