Many universities look towards industry for research funding. Detractors say academic intergrity is compromised when negative findings are suppressed, and that a Code of Practice is needed. RORY DALY and JOHN WAKEFORD report.
COMMERCIAL clients evaluate the products of their investment in terms not of their contribution to knowledge but of commercial value. But as much research is conducted through university departments, what happens when business interests conflict with central tenets of academic inquiry?
In the UK, many universities including Oxford, Cambridge and Imperial College have embraced industrial sponsors. Drug, defence and hi-tech companies purchase expertise from universities on strict terms of confidentiality. Outcomes are often commercially sensitive and affect company share prices.
Academics and PhD students financed by industry find their hands tied and their integrity compromised. Early campaigners against organo-phosphorous sprays and sheep dips were unable to identify toxicologists willing to give advice - as all had, or hoped to have, research connections with pesticide manufacturers. Commercial imperatives constrain the integrity of science and scholarship.
The University of Toronto not only dismissed Dr Nancy Olivieri for disseminating her finding that her sponsor Apotex's drug had unforeseen risks - she was later reinstated after academic protests - but also withdrew the offer of a post to David Healy for querying the safety of Prozac.
At the London School of Economics (LSE), Thanos Mergoupis and his research assistant lost their jobs when LSE failed to enforce its (US$360,000) (RM1.368mil) contract with the World Travel and Tourism Council, which withdrew after seeing an interim report on his findings.
Credibility at stake
The credibility of university science and research institutes depend on the academic's ability to establish that the research has adhered to exacting standards of independent scientific inquiry, objectivity and integrity, and that this process has been safeguarded by peer review and publication.
Responses to commercial pressures can present a significant risk for institutions.
Academic research showed that wine has a favourable impact on coronary heart disease, that garlic tablets help to prevent hardening of the arteries, that moderate consumption of olive oil might reduce some of the risks associated with passive smoking. How does it affect confidence in the results when they were acknowledged to have been underwritten by wineries, garlic tablet manufacturers and olive oil producers?
The finding by Jill Warner of Southampton University that carpets in the home increased asthma risk was criticised by her peers and the media when it was found that (apparently to the researcher's surprise) it was funded by a group that had received money from a consultancy firm which had, in turn, received money from makers of wooden floors.
Most academic staff we interviewed, perhaps out of loyalty to their institution, requested anonymity. But they asked: shouldn't universities vet all individual research projects and investments? What impact will commercialisation of research have on dissemination of information and inter-departmental cooperation in universities?
The right to publish
Should all contracts protect the right of all staff and students to publish and disseminate findings with serious consequences for the general public? But shouldn't academic freedom outweigh other considerations when seeking research funding?
One medical ethicist feared commercial funding would result in a “loss of the sense that research is a public good, done for the general welfare or common culture, rather than a private good done for self-interested reasons”.
A social policy expert wondered “whether or not the acceptance of large sums from these sources distorts patterns of recognition within the university so that research which is not able to secure such sums becomes devalued and marginalised.”
Another said: “Departments which are attractive to commercial bodies in the first place (usually in the applied sciences) do well out of their relationships with industry and to them that hath shall be given... “
“According to some, research councils encourage openness: “The aims of the research agenda funded by research councils are more clearly understood, more transparent, (than commercial funders), as researchers, policy makers, and to a lesser extent the public, has a role in determining the agenda.”
But others thought the councils were partly to blame for the reliance on commercial funding because “research councils too are prone to set preferred agenda, and to work through large-scale funding, which reduces the autonomy of individual researchers, and limits their funding opportunities”.
Editors of the world's most prestigious medical journals are taking the lead in establishing a policy of rejecting drug-company- sponsored studies that do not guarantee scientific independence to researchers or supply them with all the data.
The public should seek reassurance from universities too that, in their pursuit of funds, they maintain a strict barrier between the source of funding and the use to which it is put.
Code of practice required
The international oil, pharmaceutical and tobacco corporations are queuing with press barons to invest in universities. Other “philan-thropists” with even more dubious motives may be waiting in the wings.
The Missenden Code of Practice has been launched to assist institutions to make a circumspect response.
According to the Missenden Code of Practice: all universities should have an institutional ethics and accountability panel or committee; staff, students and the local community should be represented on the committee; the committee should take advice from those with professional expertise in ethics; the committee should vet all substantial donations, sponsorship and funding the university applies for, or is offered; the committee should inter alia ensure all sources of funding for any research carried out in the university's name is acknowledged in all publications.
Also, where the committee accepts a case for limiting the freedom to publish it should attach a “health warning” to this effect; the brief of the person within the university with responsibility for attracting external “third mission” funding should have a strong ethical element; the university's policy on intellectual property rights should be disseminated as widely as possible by case studies and be made an integral part of job induction and training programmes; sponsored research should bear a full share of the institution's infrastructure costs.
On intellectual property rights, the Missenden Code specifies that the university should retain the rights of staff to publish without hindrance except where a specific written provision has been made with the agreement of all parties - to include all research students, research assistants and assistant staff involved (this should be explicitly mentioned in all staff contracts).
The Code specifies that the right of academic staff to publish research findings should be the primary consideration of any contract between industry and academia. Commercial considerations should never be allowed to prevent publication of findings that are in the public interest or which add significantly to the body of knowledge in a field.
Moreover, those obtaining sponsorship for research should not be given undue favour in promotion decisions; universities should declare details of all investments; and, universities should consider the creation of a register of interests for all members of the university.
NOTE: Rory Daly is a consultant MA student, Lancaster University, UK. John Wakeford is head of the Missenden Centre for the Development of Higher Education, UK. This code is to be presented at an open seminar at Missenden Abbey on June 20 and 21: Working with industry - creating an ethical protocol. For details phone Barbara Tucker +44- 1494 866811 – Guardian News Service.
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