The Kept University

Commercially sponsored research is putting at risk the paramount value of higher education—disinterested inquiry. Even more alarming, the authors argue, universities themselves are behaving more and more like for-profit companies
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Illustrations by Seymour Chwast

IN the fall of 1964 a twenty-one-year-old Berkeley undergraduate named Mario Savio climbed the steps of Sproul Hall and denounced his university for bending over backwards to "serve the need of American industry." Savio, the leader of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement, accused the university of functioning as "a factory that turns out a certain product needed by industry" rather than serving as the conscience and a critic of society. To the modern ear this sixties rhetoric may sound outdated. To many people in the academic world, however, Savio's words ring truer today than ever. Although our national conversation about higher education remains focused on issues of diversity and affirmative action, nothing provoked more debate on many college campuses last year than the growing ties between universities and business—and nowhere was the debate livelier than at Berkeley.

On the afternoon of April 13, a radiant day last spring, the Berkeley campus hardly looked like a site of protest. Students lay on green lawns, soaking in the sunshine. But inside Room 60 of Evans Hall, a concrete building on the northern edge of campus, the lights were dim and the atmosphere tense. There two dozen faculty members, many of them professors in the College of Natural Resources, had gathered to present the disquieting results of a newly released faculty survey.

The focus of the survey was a controversial agreement that Berkeley had signed in November of 1998 with Novartis, a Swiss pharmaceutical giant and producer of genetically engineered crops. Under the terms of the agreement Novartis will give Berkeley $25 million to fund basic research in the Department of Plant and Microbial Biology, one of four departments within the CNR.

In exchange for the $25 million, Berkeley grants Novartis first right to negotiate licenses on roughly a third of the department's discoveries—including the results of research funded by state and federal sources as well as by Novartis. It also grants the company unprecedented representation—two of five seats—on the department's research committee, which determines how the money is spent.

That the university had the backing of a private company was hardly unusual. That a single corporation would be providing one third of the research budget of an entire department at a public university had sparked an uproar. Shortly after the agreement was signed, a newly formed graduate-student group, Students for Responsible Research, circulated a petition blasting the Novartis deal for standing "in direct conflict with our mission as a public university." The Daily Californian, Berkeley's student newspaper, published a five-part series on the growing privatization of the university, and a coalition of public-interest groups sent a letter to Berkeley's chancellor, Robert Berdahl, charging that the alliance "would disqualify a leading intellectual center from the ranks of institutions able to provide the kind of research—free from vested interest" that is the hallmark of academic life. Meanwhile, the College of Natural Resources, headed by Dean Gordon Rausser, sent a message to all professors urging them not to speak to the press and to direct any questions to the university's public-relations office. Many viewed this as a hush order.

"We are here to discuss the position of the faculty," Ignacio Chapela, a professor of microbial ecology, announced as the April 13 meeting began. Chapela, who was then the chairman of the college's executive committee, a faculty governing body, snapped on an overhead projector to display the results of the survey, and declared that the Novartis deal had left the CNR "deeply divided." While 41 percent of the faculty respondents supported the Novartis agreement as signed, more than 50 percent believed that it would have a "negative" or "strongly negative" effect on academic freedom. Roughly half believed that the agreement would erode Berkeley's commitment to "public good research," and 60 percent feared that it would impede the free exchange of ideas among scientists within the college—one of Chapela's chief concerns.

"When I came to Berkeley," Chapela explained to us after the meeting, "the people who brought me here and who were my closest colleagues were largely in the Department of Plant and Microbial Biology. Now I know that anything I say to these people can be turned around and handed over to Novartis. So I just can't talk to them anymore. If I have a good idea, I'm not going to just give it away." Chapela, like many critics of the deal, is hardly a confirmed opponent of university-industry relations. Before coming to Berkeley, he told us, he spent three years in Switzerland working for none other than Novartis—then named Sandoz—and he continues to have a relationship with the company. "I'm not opposed to individual professors' serving as consultants to industry," he said. "If something goes wrong, it's their reputation that's at stake. But this is different. This deal institutionalizes the university's relationship with one company, whose interest is profit. Our role should be to serve the public good."

The Academic-Industrial Complex

GORDON Rausser, the chief architect of the Novartis deal, believes that faculty concerns about the alliance reflect ignorance about both the Novartis deal and the changing economic realities of higher education. When we met with Rausser last year, in his spacious office in the ornate neoclassical Giannini Hall, he insisted that the deal, far from violating Berkeley's public mission, would help to perpetuate the university's status as a top-flight research institution. An economist who served on the President's Council of Economic Advisors in the 1980s and now operates a sideline consulting business, Rausser contends that Berkeley's value is "enhanced, not diminished, when we work creatively in collaboration with other institutions, including private companies." In a recent article in the Berkeley alumni magazine Rausser argues, "Without modern laboratory facilities and access to commercially developed proprietary databases ... we can neither provide first-rate graduate education nor perform the fundamental research that is part of the University's mission."

Rausser's view is more and more the norm, as academic administrators throughout the country turn to the private sector for an increasing percentage of their research dollars, in part because public support for education has been dropping. Although the federal government still supplies most of the funding for academic research (it provided $14.3 billion, or 60 percent, in 1997, the latest year for which figures are available), the rate of growth in federal support has fallen steadily over the past twelve years, as the cost of doing research, particularly in the cutting-edge fields of computer engineering and molecular biology, has risen sharply. State spending has also declined. Berkeley Chancellor Robert Berdahl says that California now supplies just 34 percent of Berkeley's overall budget, as compared with 50 percent twelve years ago, and he claims that other state universities have suffered similar cuts.

Meanwhile, corporate giving is on the rise, growing from $850 million in 1985 to $4.25 billion less than a decade later—and increasingly the money comes with strings attached. One marked trend is a boom in industry-endowed chairs. Kmart has endowed a chair in the management school at West Virginia University which requires its holder to spend up to thirty days a year training assistant store managers. Freeport McMoRan, a mining company embroiled in allegations of environmental misconduct in Indonesia, has created a chair in environmental studies at Tulane. In its series on privatization at Berkeley, The Daily Californian noted that buildings throughout the Haas School of Business were "plastered with corporate logos." One major contributor to the school is Don Fisher, the owner of The Gap, whose company also happens to be featured as a case study in an introductory business-administration course. Laura D'Andrea Tyson, formerly one of President Clinton's top economic advisers, is now officially known as the BankAmerica Dean of Haas.

In rushing to forge alliances with industry, universities are not just responding to economic necessity—they are also capitalizing on a change in federal law, implemented nearly two decades ago, that laid the foundation for today's academic-industrial complex. In 1980 concerns about declining U.S. productivity and rising competition from Japan propelled Congress to pass the Bayh-Dole Act, which for the first time allowed universities to patent the results of federally funded research. The goal of the legislation was to bring ideas out of the ivory tower and into the marketplace, by offering universities the opportunity to license campus-based inventions to U.S. companies, earning royalties in return. Both the government and the business world saw universities not merely as centers of learning and basic research but as sources of commercially valuable ideas, which is why the Business-Higher Education Forum, a coalition of corporate and academic leaders, and similar groups lobbied to tear down the walls separating universities from the marketplace. In the years since, Congress has passed numerous other laws to bolster university-industry ties, including generous tax breaks for corporations willing to invest in academic research.

The Bayh-Dole Act was from the beginning controversial. Some in Congress argued that granting private companies the rights to publicly funded research amounted to an enormous giveaway to corporations; others pronounced the act a visionary example of industrial policy that would help America compete in the fast-moving information age. What is undeniable is that Bayh-Dole has revolutionized university-industry relations. From 1980 to 1998 industry funding for academic research expanded at an annual rate of 8.1 percent, reaching $1.9 billion in 1997—nearly eight times the level of twenty years ago. Before Bayh-Dole, universities produced roughly 250 patents a year (many of which were never commercialized); in fiscal year 1998, however, universities generated more than 4,800 patent applications. University-industry collaborations, Rausser argues, have brought important new products—anti-AIDS treatments, cancer drugs—to market, and have spurred America's booming biotech and computing industries. "The University of California alone has issued over five hundred patents since Bayh-Dole," Rausser says.

This is a powerful argument, but a troubling one. In an age when ideas are central to the economy, universities will inevitably play a role in fostering growth. But should we allow commercial forces to determine the university's educational mission and academic ideals? In higher education today corporations not only sponsor a growing amount of research—they frequently dictate the terms under which it is conducted. Professors, their image as unbiased truth-seekers notwithstanding, often own stock in the companies that fund their work. And universities themselves are exhibiting a markedly more commercial bent. Most now operate technology-licensing offices to manage their patent portfolios, often guarding their intellectual property as aggressively as any business would. Schools with limited budgets are pouring money into commercially oriented fields of research, while downsizing humanities departments and curbing expenditures on teaching. Occasional reports on these developments, including a recent 60 Minutes segment on corporate-sponsored research, have begun to surface beyond the university. But the larger picture has yet to be filled out. It is this: universities, once wary beneficiaries of corporate largesse, have become eager co-capitalists, embracing market values as never before.

Secrecy and Science

IN a classic paper published in 1942, the sociologist Robert K. Merton likened the culture of science more to the ideals of communism than to capitalism, because intellectual property was commonly shared and discoveries were freely exchanged. "The scientist's claim to 'his' intellectual 'property,'" Merton wrote, was "limited to that of recognition and esteem," and scientific knowledge was assumed to be a public good.

Illustrations by Seymour ChwastToday scientists who perform industry-sponsored research routinely sign agreements requiring them to keep both the methods and the results of their work secret for a certain period of time. From a company's point of view, confidentiality may be necessary to prevent potential competitors from pilfering ideas. But what constitutes a reasonable period of secrecy? The National Institutes of Health recommends that universities allow corporate sponsors to prohibit publication for no more than one or two months (the amount of time ordinarily necessary to apply for a patent), but lengthier delays are becoming standard. Berkeley's contract with Novartis, for example, allows the company to postpone publication for up to four months. A survey of 210 life-science companies, conducted in 1994 by researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital, found that 58 percent of those sponsoring academic research require delays of more than six months before publication.

"One of the most basic tenets of science is that we share information in an open way," says Steven Rosenberg, of the National Cancer Institute, who is among the country's leading cancer researchers. "As biotech and pharmaceutical companies have become more involved in funding research, there's been a shift toward confidentiality that is severely inhibiting the interchange of information." A few years ago Rosenberg confronted this problem firsthand when he tried to obtain information on safe-dosage levels for a reagent he sought to use in a clinical trial involving an experimental cancer treatment. The company asked Rosenberg to sign a confidentiality agreement, and when he refused, they withheld the information. Rosenberg has become so alarmed about secrecy that he now urges all scientists and research institutions to reject confidentiality restrictions on principle. Few have heeded his call. A 1997 survey of 2,167 university scientists, which appeared in the Journal of the American Medical Association, revealed that nearly one in five had delayed publication for more than six months to protect proprietary information—and this was the number that admitted to delay. "The ethics of business and the ethics of science do not mix well," Rosenberg says. "This is the real dark side of science."

Nelson Kiang, a professor emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and at Harvard, who recently organized an MIT conference on "Secrecy in Science," worries in particular that students, rather than learning proper scientific protocol, are being taught to accept the inhibiting power of money over science. "One hears of many students at MIT who complain about not being able to publish their theses in a timely fashion," Kiang says, "but when we tried to involve them in the conference, not a single one would come forward, and they actually asked us specifically not to be named. Of course, it's not surprising. They fear that if they come forward, they might get into trouble with their supervisors."

Worse than the problems of enforced secrecy and delay, however, is the possibility that behind closed doors some corporate sponsors are manipulating manuscripts before publication to serve their commercial interests. In the summer of 1996 four researchers working on a study of calcium channel blockers—frequently prescribed for high blood pressure—quit in protest after their sponsor, Sandoz, removed passages from a draft manuscript highlighting the drugs' potential dangers, which include stroke and heart failure. The researchers aired their concerns in a letter to the Journal of the American Medical Association: "We believed that the sponsor ... was attempting to wield undue influence on the nature of the final paper. This effort was so oppressive that we felt it inhibited academic freedom." Such meddling, though generally difficult to document, may well be common. A study of major research centers in the field of engineering found that 35 percent would allow corporate sponsors to delete information from papers prior to publication.

This past May, at a meeting of the American Association of University Professors, in Boston, a group of academics gathered to discuss the growing corporate threat to academic freedom—and the apparent reluctance of universities to defend it. Among those present was David Kern, formerly the director of occupational medicine at Brown University's Memorial Hospital. In 1996, while serving as a consultant to Microfibres, a Rhode Island company that produces nylon flock, Kern discovered evidence of a serious new lung disease among the company's employees. Upon learning that he planned to publish his findings, the company threatened to sue, citing a confidentiality agreement that forbade Kern to expose "trade secrets." The information that Kern had gathered had come from tests on volunteers, and concerned not proprietary secrets but a serious threat to public health. Yet Brown University, too, tried to dissuade Kern from publishing, warning that the company might file suit. Outraged, Kern published anyway, and in 1997 the Centers for Disease Control officially recognized the new disease, flock worker's lung. Although Microfibres never did file suit, Kern's position at Brown was eliminated. "Universities should protect their faculty from any efforts to encroach on academic freedom," Kern says. "Unfortunately, with so much corporate money flooding into academia, that's not happening." At the AAUP conference several professors shared similar experiences, and these may only hint at the scope of the problem.

Mildred Cho, a senior research scholar at Stanford's Center for Biomedical Ethics, warns that for every David Kern who steps forward in such cases, an unknown number of researchers voluntarily toe the company line. "When you have so many scientists on boards of companies or doing sponsored research," Cho explains, "you start to wonder, How are these studies being designed? What kinds of research questions are being raised? What kinds aren't being raised?" In a 1996 study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, Cho found that 98 percent of papers based on industry-sponsored research reflected favorably on the drugs being examined, as compared with 79 percent of papers based on research not funded by industry. More recently, an analysis published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that studies of cancer drugs funded by pharmaceutical companies were roughly one eighth as likely to reach unfavorable conclusions as nonprofit-funded studies. Might the public begin to see academics less as stewards of truth than as hired hands?

Or worse than hired hands: interested parties. More and more, professors not only accept industry grants to perform research but also hold stock or have other financial ties to the companies funding them. In a study of 800 scientific papers published in a range of academic journals, Sheldon Krimsky, a professor of public policy at Tufts University and a leading authority on conflicts of interest, found that slightly more than a third of the authors had a significant financial interest in their reports. Michael McCarthy, an editor at the British medical journal The Lancet, says such links are now so common that he "often can't find anyone who doesn't have a financial interest" in a drug or therapy the journal would like to review. Although Krimsky doesn't believe that the mere existence of such ties makes an academic study suspect, he advocates full disclosure. Yet in none of the nearly 300 studies in which Krimsky found a conflict of interest were readers informed about it.

The Securities and Exchange Commission has also detected this trend and is now investigating numerous academic researchers suspected of engaging in insider trading. In a case filed recently in Pennsylvania, the SEC charged Dale J. Lange, a Columbia University neurologist, with pocketing $26,000 in profits after Lange bought stock in a company that was about to release promising new findings concerning a drug to treat Lou Gehrig's disease. Lange expected the stock to soar because he had conducted the confidential clinical trials.

The growing concern about potential conflicts of interest has prompted some universities to forbid professors to perform sponsored research for companies in which they hold equity. The federal government is also taking steps. In 1996 the Public Health Service issued guidelines that require all academic researchers to report it to their schools if they have received payments of more than $10,000 from a company or if they hold at least five percent of its stock. At most universities, however, such information is kept private, which means that frequently neither journal editors nor academic peers know who has ties to industry and who hasn't.

More than a year before fen-phen, the appetite suppressant, was pulled off the market because it seemed to be implicated in a number of deaths, a group of researchers published a study in The New England Journal of Medicine warning that drugs like fen-phen could have potentially fatal side effects. But the same issue contained a commentary from two academic researchers that downplayed the health dangers of fen-phen. Both authors had served as paid consultants to the manufacturers and distributors of similar drugs—connections that were not mentioned. "I was outraged when I saw that," Stuart Rich, a professor at Rush Medical College, told the Chronicle of Higher Education when the ties were exposed. "The study was the only scientific study that said these diet pills kill people." Like universities, some journals have begun requiring academic contributors to disclose corporate financial ties. But in a study released last year Sheldon Krimsky and another researcher examined 62,000 articles and found that these ties were disclosed in only 0.5 percent of them.

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