Universities as corporate vassals? Not so fast

By Deborah Jones
March 19, 2014

A startling report seems to contradict the nostrum that government or non-profit-funded research is always more “useful” than corporate-funded research.

New data published March 19 in the peer-reviewed journal Nature found that greater benefits flowed from projects with at least some private funding, than from other sources.

“These findings should allay concerns that corporate sponsorship turns leading universities into corporate vassals,” said researchers from Greece and the U.S., led by Brian D. Wright of Berkeley, California.

The team studied 12,516 inventions and related licenses at nine University of California campuses and three associated national laboratories over a 20-year period. Nearly 1,500 of those inventions were supported at least partly by private industry.

What do the researchers mean by “useful?” A utilitarian definition, apparently: the greatest good to the greatest numbers.

“Inventions made using corporate funds were more likely to yield patents and licences than those resulting from federal support alone,” said the researchers in a Comment essay.

 They include two other factors that suggest “usefulness:”

  • the corporate funders directly benefitted in only half of the cases studied, because the licences and patents went to a third party.
  • corporate-funded inventions spurred more spin-off innovation than did publicly-funded inventions, as measured by citations.

The reason for this “usefulness,” they hypothesize, “is that corporations turn to academics for exploratory research — science that might be more speculative than what could be successfully funded with government grants.”

In other words, corporations are more willing than public agencies to take risks.

The report lands as intellectual property rights, technology transfer and the over all role of universities is being debated in all debt-strapped countries — and at a time when basic science and humanities research, in particular, are under fire from instrumental overseers demanding results.

The researchers wrote in Nature:

“Governments have long encouraged university–industry collaboration, hoping to spur innovations that bring jobs, investment and life-enhancing products. At the same time, shrinking government budgets for science have forced universities to look to other sources of funding.

But the role of corporations in academic research is controversial. For example, when oil company BP announced in 2007 that it would pay $500 million to fund a decade of alternative-energy research by a consortium headed by the University of California, Berkeley, this prompted a backlash. Fearing that industry money would contaminate the public institution’s research agenda, many students, staff and members of the community picketed the campus with a  2.5-metre Trojan horse.

The finding that there are broader benefits from privately-funded projects surprised even the researchers. “We didn’t expect these results,” said Wright in a publicity story released by the University of California, Berkeley. “We thought companies would be interested in applied research that was closer to being products, and thus more likely to be licensed exclusively and less cited than federally funded counterparts, but that did not turn out to be the case.”

The report strongly cautioned that their findings do not apply to product trials, and called for more work on the topic because the research was limited to campuses at the University of California.

The team also warned that industry funding of research requires continued oversight, because “The tobacco, food, pharmaceutical and other industries have been shown to manipulate research questions and public discourse for their benefit, and even to suppress unfavourable research.”

“Universities setting up contracts with corporations need to be vigilant in their mission to generate and transfer knowledge, but they should not assume that companies are focused mainly on tying up intellectual property.”

Copyright © Deborah Jones 2014

References and further reading:
Comment in the journal Nature: http://www.nature.com/news/technology-transfer-industry-funded-academic-inventions-boost-innovation-1.14874
Statement from University of California, Berkeley: http://newscenter.berkeley.edu/2014/03/19/industry-academic-inventions-spur-innovation/


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