Back to top

CAUT Bulletin Archives

June 1999

Growing Commercial Pressures Endanger Academic Freedom & University Autonomy

Neil Tudiver
A report prepared recently by a committee of the Prime Minister's Advisory Council on Science and Technology is urging the federal government to make universities far more commercial. The recommendations pose serious threats to university autonomy and academic freedom. The Council's Expert Panel on the Commercialization of University Research, which tabled the report on May 4, 1999, suggests a plan that could eventually make the campus an extension of industry.

Threats of commercialization have been identified before. In 1951 the Massey Royal Commission on the Arts, Letters and Sciences warned that commercial influences endangered the intellectual and moral purpose of the university. More public money was needed to strengthen university independence. Ottawa responded with $7 million in new direct grants to universities. The grants gradually increased to $99 million in 1965-66, and reached $628 million in 1970.

This kind of support did not last long. By the next decade, Ottawa had scaled back university funding, even though enrolment kept growing. While universities struggled to balance their books, the federal government embarked on plans to place them in partnership with industry.

The Science Council of Canada urged universities to transfer knowledge and findings to corporations. NSERC intensified its support for university-industry cooperative research and development. Granting programs in the Department of Industry, Trade and Commerce required university researchers to benefit business with new products, expanded markets and procedures for more efficient production. The first 15 Networks of Centres of Excellence funded in 1989-90 for $240 million involved 32 universities with 168 corporate partners.

The committee's report contends that the steps taken so far are not nearly enough. The panel wants a national policy on commercialization of universities.

Universities are being driven to commercialize to make up for Canada's relatively low rates of spending on research and development, at 1.56 per cent of GDP in 1997, compared to 2.62 per cent in the United States.

About 90 per cent of the shortfall is because of Canada's much lower rate of research done by industry. Instead of analyzing the reasons for this shortfall, the report suggests that universities should fill the gap by doing research for industry.

The committee's main recommendation is for universities to adopt "innovation" as a fourth mission, along with their current mandates in teaching, research and service. This innocuous wording sets out a chilling prospect, since the committee defines innovation in very narrow terms, as "the process of bringing new goods and services to the market, or the result of that process."

For universities to become so commercialized, the committee recommends a national Intellectual Property (IP) policy fashioned after the 1980 Bayh-Dole Act in the United States. The proposed Canadian version would require universities to hold the rights to commercialize all IP that results from federally funded research. This might be manageable if there were no further constraints, either on sharing the IP with academics who produced it, or on distributing it more widely to the public.

The committee has a more narrow view of the matter. It expects universities to make their best efforts to commercialize the IP, by either doing it themselves or assigning it to industrial partners. Universities are also expected to provide incentives for faculty to create intellectual property. This would include making commercialization a factor in tenure and promotion policies. Ottawa would monitor their progress by requiring universities to file annual performance reports on commercialization strategies.

The committee wants every campus to have a substantial commercialization infrastructure, with experts to motivate and monitor faculty performance. Even though most large universities already have such offices, with as many as 25 FTE staff at the University of Alberta and 15 at the University of British Columbia, the committee finds most of them short of resources and expertise. It wants to set aside 5 per cent of all federal research grants to cover the costs of commercialization infrastructures. This amounts to $50 million a year that could otherwise be spent directly on research. Instead, it would support a massive system of campus offices for academic commercialization.

Conservative bias is also evident in the committee's proposal to reduce taxes for people with the highest personal incomes. No clear reason is offered for how this would produce higher quality or greater quantity of research. One can only assume that commercialization is expected to produce more millionaires who should not be burdened with high income taxes. The proposal would more closely harmonize taxation rates between Canada and the United States -- which may be one of the committee's unstated objectives.

Another proposal along these lines is for a federal Registered Share Ownership Plan, with a lifetime tax exemption of $2 million per person for gains made from employee stock options. This is a remarkable gift for senior executives who receive much of their compensation in stock options.

As a package, these proposals would make university research policies to a greater extent similar to those in the United States. They follow a pattern of harmonization that began with the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement and continued with NAFTA. Canadian policies have already moved a considerable distance towards U.S. models. We now have much lower benefits and tighter regulations in income security and employment insurance. Health care services are being privatized. Unless there is enough opposition, universities will be the next victims of privatization.

Until now privatization in Canada has concentrated on turning over crown corporations, programs and services to for-profit businesses. Commercializing intellectual property introduces a new dimension that has more far-reaching consequences. It involves privatizing knowledge that would otherwise be freely available. Experiences in the U.S. suggest what we can expect if Canada adopts legislation similar to the Bayh-Dole Act.

Corporate funding limits academics' ability to publicly comment on events within their area of expertise. Last June Peter Desbarats wrote in the Globe and Mail about how he restrained from commenting on Rogers Communications' takeover of Maclean Hunter in 1995 while he was dean of journalism at the University of Western Ontario. This was because Rogers had endowed a $1 million chair of information studies at his faculty.

Lawrence Soley, author of Leasing the Ivory Tower: The Corporate Takeover of Academia, argues that potential conflicts of interest are not always treated so carefully. In his article, "Phi Beta Capitalism," Soley describes cases where academics deliver favourable comments on practices of industries from which they receive financial support.

Links to the supporting industries are not always transparent. A study published in the October 1996 issue of Science and Engineering Ethics examined articles published by Massachusetts university researchers in leading scientific and medical journals. It found that authors with financial involvement in the outcomes of the research did not disclose their interests.

Academics are expected to provide unbiased analysis based on independent research and expertise. Without this autonomy we lose our credibility, and become servants of the people who fund our work.

A growing amount of academic research is already following the interests of corporate sponsors. Money for clinical trials provides a lot of support for university researchers. But the scope of studies sponsored by drug companies can be severely limited, sometimes to just comparing one brand against another. Results may also be biased.

Barbara Mintzes in her book, Blurring the Boundaries: New Trends in Drug Promotion describes recent studies suggesting that research done by recipients of corporate money tends to inordinately favour their sponsors. A 1994 review published in the Archives of Internal Medicine examined 56 industry-sponsored studies of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs to treat osteoarthritis that were published between 1987 and 1990. In every case the sponsor's drug was found to be either equally or more effective than the comparison drug.

Corporate control over research findings is another big problem. Industrial sponsors often require the right to delete information, or delay or even withhold publication. In one well-publicized case Betty Dong, at the University of California, San Francisco, was forbidden in 1995 by Knoll Pharmaceuticals Co. from publishing the results of a study it had financed. Dong had found that Synthroid, a hypothyroid drug made by Knoll, was equivalent to competing generic drugs. Switching to the cheaper drugs could reduce health care costs by $356 million. Knoll finally allowed Ms. Dong to publish the article in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 1997 after the case was widely publicized. Ms Dong had made the mistake of signing a contract that required the company's approval over any publication.

Universities in the forefront of commercialization offer elaborate schemes to induce the faculty to work for business. MIT's Industrial Liaison Program serves hundreds of corporate members that pay annual fees in the tens of thousands of dollars. Faculty earn points for serving ILP members. In 1997 they received one point for each unpublished article that was given to an ILP member, two points for a phone conversation or brief campus meeting, and 12 points for visiting a company's headquarters or laboratory. Each point was worth about $35 that could be exchanged for prizes such as office furniture, computer equipment or travel to professional conferences.

Commercialization requires immense effort to seek out opportunities and find faculty willing to gear their work to the market. Negotiating contracts with industrial partners is even more time-consuming. Research can be delayed for years while university and corporate lawyers work to protect the interests of their clients. Why engage in these efforts that divert our energies away from teaching and research?

This proposal to the Prime Minister's Advisory Council on Science and Technology would move universities one step closer to becoming a branch of industry. It should be rejected.

Neil Tudiver teaches in the faculty of social work at the University of Manitoba.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of CAUT.