How Corporate Money Has Distorted American Science
Clifford D. Conner on the Distortion of the Public-Private Relationship
Between 1964 and 1967, I was a willing yet unwitting participant in the co-optation of university science by the corporate world. Several of my professors at Georgia Tech were moonlighting as experimental psychologists in the human factors laboratory at Lockheed Aircraft. When they offered to help me get an entry-level job in the lab after I graduated, I eagerly embraced the opportunity.
I was unaware of any conflict of interest or ethical dilemma. It seemed reasonable to me (insofar as I thought of it at all) that an aircraft manufacturer required the benefits science could provide and was willing to pay for them. No one seemed to have an axe to grind; no experiments seemed tailored to fit preconceived outcomes. Where was the problem?
Many years later, with benefit of hindsight and a broader view of the world, I came to understand that the problem was the overwhelming power of corporate money to distort the priorities of American science. Lockheed functioned as a mammoth funding conduit for the Pentagon, steering billions of dollars in scientific resources toward military research. And in the course of serving their own corporate needs, Lockheed and other military contractors dragged university research facilities with them into the militarization of science.
But that was in the 1960s, which belong to the prehistory of the academic-industrial complex. The Lockheed laboratory, although staffed with Georgia Tech professors, was not officially affiliated with the university. A 1982 report in Science, the journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, called attention to a new, emerging trend: “During the past two years, corporate investment in academic science has proliferated at major research universities throughout the United States.”
There was no doubt about what was driving this new relationship: “From the university’s point of view, the special appeal of the burgeoning industrial connection is quite simple—money.” The decline in federal funding for science during the 1970s was accelerating in the 1980s due to the Reagan administration’s budget-cutting agenda. But as the adage goes, when one door closes, another opens. The year Reagan was elected, the Bayh-Dole Act paved the way to corporate ownership of patents derived from taxpayer-funded research, thus transforming public knowledge into private property. The financial rewards for university-corporate collaboration increased considerably for both sides. Traditional norms prohibiting professorial profiteering rapidly fell by the wayside.
The financial arrangements that had elicited the journal’s alarm seem quaintly petite today. Nonetheless, a corner had been turned: “Scientists who 10 years ago would have snubbed their academic noses at industrial money now eagerly seek it out.” Corporations were investing in academic research, the journal continued, because they coveted the universities’ research talent and technical skill. Molecular biologists were especially in demand; the commercial potential of recombinant DNA technology had made them “a commodity of considerable interest to corporations.” Note that in this interpretation the scientists themselves, not the technology, had been commodified.
Another manifestation of the new infusion of commercial values into academic science was the sudden appearance in the early 1980s of hundreds of small biotech companies headed by university scientists. “A majority of the country’s leading researchers in molecular genetics and related disciplines are known to have affiliations with these new, highly competitive companies.” These small fish were expected to eventually serve as feedstock for bigger fish:
Many of the major pharmaceutical and chemical houses are currently beefing up their own capacity for research in molecular biology—Upjohn, Monsanto, and Allied Chemical among them. . . .
These corporations can be expected to acquire or drive out some of the small, scientist-founded biotechnology companies of which there now are nearly 200.
The academic-industrial complex has come a long way since 1982. Persistent and deepening funding cutbacks have continued to force public and private universities alike to turn to corporations and financiers for survival. In 1982 industry was spending an estimated $200 million a year on research in American universities, only about four percent of the amount of federal funding received by those institutions. While corresponding figures for today are virtually impossible to calculate, industry’s investment in university research is now in the billions rather than millions. And as the corporate component has ballooned, government support has steadily declined.
From the Second World War until recently, most basic science research was financed by the federal government. Corporations had traditionally put their money into applied research and left basic research to the feds, because applied research pays off in short-term profits whereas the pursuit of fundamental knowledge generally does not. Throughout the 1960s and ’70s, the federal share was over 70 percent. It was still above 60 percent in 2004, but in 2013 it dropped below 50 percent and stood at 44 percent in 2015.
The amount of present-day corporate financing is generally underestimated because much of it is deliberately hidden from view. For one thing, corporations can disguise their research funding as tax-deductible donations to university foundations. Although some states require the donations to be a matter of public record, many do not. Another way that the money influencing research is concealed is via Industry Affiliates programs, which for a fixed fee “provide corporate partners with a wide range of benefits, like a guaranteed seat on an advisory board, early access to student résumés, private recruiting sessions, or full access to in-person meetings on campus.” Virginia Tech offers thirty Industry Affiliate programs. A former director of one such program at Purdue University acknowledges that the arrangements are “controversial,” because “it has an appearance, by paying a fee, of buying a researcher.”
Although publicly funded research is monitored by the US Office of Research Integrity, corporate-funded research has no such oversight. Corporate sponsors can therefore freely influence every stage of the process, from the experimental design to the size and focus of studies to the interpretation of their results.
STEM studies, encompassing science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, is a relatively new acronym for technical education. If you were asked to name well-known institutions of higher STEM learning, chances are you would include my alma mater, the Georgia Institute of Technology, on a short list headed by MIT and Cal Tech. Alas, Georgia Tech owes its name recognition mostly to a history of football prowess and its famous fight song, “I’m a ramblin’ wreck from Georgia Tech and a heck of an engineer.”
Rensselaer Polytechnical Institute (RPI), by contrast, has far less in the way of name recognition, but way back in the 1960s my classmates and I were envious of its sterling reputation among STEM cognoscenti. Founded in 1824, Rensselaer was the first technological research university in the United States. More recently, unfortunately, it has become best known for its high-profile role within the academic-industrial complex.
Rensselaer’s president, Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson, has an exemplary résumé. She is a theoretical physicist, and among other accomplishments has served as chair of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and on the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. Dr. Jackson was featured in a 2014 New York Times report that identified her as “part of a cozy and lucrative club: presidents and other senior university officials who cross from academia into the business world to serve on corporate boards.” She sits on the boards of directors of numerous companies, including IBM, Marathon Oil, and FedEx.
The system of interlocking directorships that entwines Rensselaer with IBM and other companies integrates university research ever more thoroughly into the corporate world. By 2006 more than 50 percent of public and private universities granting doctoral degrees had presidents who were serving as corporate board members.
In 2017, Dr. Jackson’s corporate connections paid off in the form of a $100 million supercomputer given by IBM to Rensselaer. Also in 2017, Rensselaer was a key beneficiary of a $200 million endeavor bringing to its campus a new biopharmaceuticals institute bearing the unwieldy acronym NIIMBL. NIIMBL was created by combining a $70 million grant from the US Commerce Department with “an initial private investment of at least $129 million from a consortium of more than 150 companies, educational institutions, nonprofits, and state governments.”
NIIMBL’s hybrid funding makes it a prime example of the vaunted public-private partnerships, or PPPs, that have increasingly characterized the academic-industrial complex. PPPs allow private companies to leverage public funds to carry out their for-profit research agendas. Tax dollars are used to bolster their investments by building research facilities on prestigious campuses, to establish brand-name academic chairs, to fund scholarships for future scientists they hope to recruit, and so forth.
NIIMBL was but one facet of Dr. Jackson’s multibillion-dollar Rensselaer Plan to construct what she calls “The New Polytechnic.” Rensselaer publicity reveals one way this “emerging paradigm for higher education” serves private corporate interests:
Collaborating colleges and universities will work with industry to provide education and training programs, curriculum development, and certification standards that will ensure a pipeline of skilled workers.
Dr. Jackson’s vision “represents the ‘tip of the iceberg’ of America’s trend toward a corporate model for universities,” critics have charged. What that model entails is Rensselaer itself becoming primarily a mammoth financial institution and only secondarily the educator of a new generation of scientists (aka the “pipeline of skilled workers”).
Rensselaer’s example is instructive but not atypical. Some universities, one astute commentator observed, “have struck bargains only Faust could love.” By unfortunate coincidence, one of the more important representatives of university-corporate entanglement—“the first sitting Harvard president to agree to serve on a corporate board,” Dr. Drew Gilpin Faust—happened to bear that surname.
But if Harvard’s Dr. Faust and her peers play the title role in this version of Doctor Faustus, the devil’s bargain is the unrelenting drive for private profit that has starved our society’s public sector of resources. Education at every level has suffered mightily, and the crisis of public education has burrowed deeply into the private universities as well. Even those as enviably endowed as Harvard have been affected. In the past, Harvard’s most distinguished researchers had no trouble winning millions of dollars in government grants to conduct their work. Now, with federal research funding flat-lining, even the best in their fields have to court new sources of support. Following their peers at other universities that have already felt the pinch, Harvard scientists are increasingly appealing to corporations and wealthy philanthropists.
Microsoft, GlaxoSmithKline, the chemical giant BASF, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation are but a few who have answered the Harvard researchers’ pleas. Bioengineering professor Kit Parker lamented, “I’ve gotten to the point now that running my research group is making me less and less of a scientist; I’m a hustler.”
The University of California at Berkeley, like Harvard, is an illustrious institution of higher learning with a strong desire to boost its STEM cred. But in 2013 investigative journalist Joaquin Palomino reported a familiar dilemma:
The UC system is projecting a $2.5 billion structural shortfall by 2015, and the university’s financial managers have no concrete plans to address the crisis. As a result, private money has continued to flow into Berkeley’s hard science departments with little public input.
Earlier, in 1997, UC Berkeley’s biology department formed a public-private partnership with Novartis to conduct GMO studies. That touched off “an explosion in privately funded research.” In 2007, Berkeley and the University of Illinois joined British Petroleum in forming the Energy Biosciences Institute—“the largest public-private partnership of its kind in the world.” British Petroleum’s primary interest in the $500 million venture was to further biofuels research, but it derived other valuable benefits from the deal as well.
In 2010, British Petroleum’s Deepwater Horizon disaster dumped 210 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, contaminating 665 miles of coastline.
Just one month after the ruptured well was sealed, UC Berkeley ecologist Terry Hazen made a groundbreaking discovery: He identified a new microorganism that was eating the spilled oil and breaking it down into CO2 and water. The microbe was so active that, according to Hazen and his team of scientists, the vast plumes of oil in the gulf had “went away fairly rapidly after the well was capped.” Hazen’s findings were published in the academic journal Science, and subsequently reported by most major media outlets. One fact, however, was often omitted: The research was funded by BP.
“When people read the Science report, they thought they were reading a Berkeley professor’s research,” a professor of microbial ecology said. “They didn’t realize it was also BP saying, ‘You shouldn’t worry about the oil spill anymore.’”I suspect most university scientists make honest efforts to uphold the integrity of their respective disciplines, but only the most courageous and committed can withstand the unrelenting pressures of careerism.
Corporate cash has not only corroded the scientific integrity of UC Berkeley research but also transformed the character of the university as a whole. In 2012, Berkeley’s chancellor paradoxically declared that “to guarantee our public character, we need to increase substantially our private support.” The president of the University of California went further, insisting that it had ceased to be a public institution and had become a “hybrid” university with more private than public characteristics. It must, he said, “adjust to this new reality.
The ethical concerns expressed in the 1982 Science report are faint echoes from a remote past. The floodgates are now fully open. As the many examples cited in this and the previous chapters illustrate, the fusion of “business ethics” with academic research goes directly against the grain of scientific integrity and reliability:
Studies produced under such conditions are designed from the start to favor sponsors’ products over the data collection and analysis methods are controlled by the sponsor.
If the desired results are attained, credentialed scientists (who may or may not have been part of the investigative team) submit the study under their names to prestigious scientific
If the study cannot produce what the sponsor wants, it will not be published.
Meanwhile, university researchers on corporate payrolls serve on federal scientific panels that regulate the industries’ operations and products.
The public-private partnerships also promote the privatization of scientific knowledge, which is anathema to the ideal of science as a public asset. Scientific progress requires open science—maximizing the sharing of research findings as widely as possible, not restricting them.
I suspect most university scientists make honest efforts to uphold the integrity of their respective disciplines, but only the most courageous and committed can withstand the unrelenting pressures of careerism. The corporate Mephistopheles offers well-funded projects with the lure of fortune, prestige, and high positions in industry. Even the well-meaning scientists who accept corporate funding because the alternative is to give up their research entirely are often unaware—or in denial of—how their work is manipulated. Blatant attempts to directly dictate research outcomes are not the norm. Far more problematic are the ever-present subtler influences on the priorities or parameters of the studies.
More generally, the corporatization of university research “transforms students into customers, teachers into workers, administrators into CEOs, and campuses into market populations.” Students, it should be added, are only customers while they are in school; as we have seen, their education is designed to commodify them into “skilled workers.” Rensselaer’s “emerging paradigm for higher education” has apparently won the day.
From The Tragedy of American Science by Clifford D. Conner. Used with the permission of Haymarket Books. Copyright © 2020 by Clifford D. Conner.