Corporate funding of university research is on the increase, and increasingly restricting academic freedom — the ability of scientists to follow their research wherever it leads — according to a new Harvard University study.
For example, around 70 percent of clinical drug trials in the United States are now funded by the pharmaceutical industry, according to the Harvard School of Public Health study. And while many universities seem determined to maintain professors' independence when pursuing corporate-funded research, others seem willing to allow corporate funders to make crucial decisions, the study says. The differences between schools' approaches “raises the possibility that industry sponsors could 'forum shop,' channeling their studies to relatively permissive institutions,” according to the study.
Some responses to the Harvard survey raise questions about just who is running the show at some research institutions — the scientists or the companies funding their studies? Half of the schools responding to the study said they would allow corporate sponsors to draft the papers that report professors' research, limiting the academic investigators' role to suggesting revisions. But 40 percent of the schools responding said they wouldn't give funders such latitude.
Twenty-four percent of the schools would allow industry funders to insert their own statistical analysis of data into research manuscripts, and 41 percent would allow sponsors to prohibit academic researchers from sharing their data with others even after a study was over. Some scientists consider sharing data with third parties to be “important for verifying research findings,” the study authors note.
Academic freedom “boils down to freedom of inquiry, exploration, investigation, research, expression, publication and dissemination,” said Lisa Bero, a pharmacy professor at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF). “If you are receiving money, there should be no strings attached that can get in the way of any of those things.” However, strings are attached, Bero said.
Bero contends that some studies are funded specifically to add to research that will bolster a funder's policy or business objectives, rather than to seek new knowledge. Sponsors also get too involved in analyzing data and sometimes allow only positive data to be submitted for publication in peer-reviewed journals, she says.
When psychologist William Pelham, of the State University of New York at Buffalo, conducted pharmaceutical industry-funded research on attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, he said the company pressured him to revise three journal articles he'd written about the research, to minimize the contribution that non-drug treatments made to patients' outcomes and to cast the company's drug in a positive light.
Further casting doubt on professors' ability to conduct agenda-free research are the financial rewards academics can receive from working on industry-sponsored projects, such as stock options and consulting contracts, Bero suggested. Such personal financial ties between corporate funders and academic researchers “are increasing all over the country among all sorts of academics,” Bero said. At UCSF, for example, about 30 percent of faculty had such personal financial ties to research funders in 2002 and 2003, she estimated.
Corporations only fund about 7 percent of academic research, but “that percentage has grown more rapidly than support from all other sources over the past two decades” and is expected to continue its fast growth, according to the American Association of University Professors. Corporate funding focuses on medicine, biology, chemistry and engineering.
Meanwhile, overall industry funding at universities — not only of research but also of buildings, professorships, academic programs, think tanks and more — has become “omnipresent,” says Larry Soley, a journalism professor at Marquette University and author of a 1995 book on corporate funding of academia. “It's reached the point where every time you turn around, you see a donor's name on something.”
Soley says the influx of corporate funding has skewed university research portfolios toward applied studies such as drug development and away from basic science and also contributed to the growing imbalance in pay between high-paid research professors and a growing cadre of non-tenured and adjunct faculty who are “exploited” financially while doing the lion's share of teaching.
Worse, “faculties don't even speak about” the transformation, says Soley.
Nevertheless, when it comes to research funding, “partnerships between industry sponsors and academics are absolutely essential” to the advancement of science, and “the public benefits incalculably from them,” the Harvard study says. However, the relationships do “have to be carefully managed.”
It's vital that professors consider their public role in the new world of corporate funding, says Bero, adding that researchers have more responsibility than ever to think twice about whether their academic freedom is being compromised. “The key here is whether it is OK to take money from anybody if there are strings attached,” she says.