As Canada’s public universities and colleges continue their transformation — under pressures of austerity budgeting and imperatives of neoliberal ideology — into hybrid organizations dependent on both public and private financial support, it is increasingly urgent that we recognize and confront the resulting contradictions.
Academic research conducted on our publicly-funded campuses serves the public good through creation and development of knowledge in its broadest sense. In this it is unique: beholden to no corporate agenda or government directive, academic researchers engage with all sorts of questions, from the fundamental to the unorthodox, with timeframes that often preclude the swift capitalization of marketable products. And independent academic researchers sometimes discover truths that private or political interests do not want to hear, yet which must be acknowledged nonetheless. We depend on such research for our prosperity, for our health, and for the well-being of future generations.
When public funding shrinks, or disappears, the temptation to turn to alternative sources for continuance of such essential work is immense. As a result, pressure has long mounted on academic researchers to partner with private industry. Such partnerships have become essential to many university and college business plans, and dependence on private research financing will only continue to grow whenever governments fail to live up to their responsibility to support the post-secondary education sector. Unfortunately, public-private research collaborations also raise the spectre of conflict of interest.
Private partners and financers of campus-based academic research should understand that they cannot simply buy access to publicly-subsidized laboratories and personnel. They are rather entering into relationships with institutions that maintain independence at all levels of intellectual pursuit, and whose credibility relies heavily on that fact. Violations of academic freedom — whether by restricting publication of findings through confidentiality agreements, or by unduly limiting the directions new research can take, or by threatening punitive action when undesirable conclusions are reached — are not only detrimental in the first instance to academic staff, but also ultimately undermine the integrity of academic research and harm the interests of society as a whole.
Universities and colleges may rely on private funding to survive these days, and the resulting collaborations may at times even serve as a positive stimulus to innovation. But this can only happen when partnerships are governed by clear, transparent, enforceable agreements that protect the principles of academic freedom and autonomy. Absent such agreements, there is no way to limit funders’ natural tendency to seek to influence the outcomes of research they feel they paid for. It is up to university and college leaders to ensure this does not happen, and to realize that no amount of money can ever justify compromising the fundamental core interests of the public trust they have undertaken to serve.
Private partnerships that do not respect that trust, or which demand any abrogation of academic freedom, or where transparency is lacking, simply have no place in academic life.