Sat, May 27, 2000 - Page 9 News List

In the battle for money, universities risk selling their souls

Does large-scale corporate funding of research damage the academic objectivity that fosters creative thinking and scientific development?

By Chi Chun-huei

When a pharmaceutical manufac-turer provides university professors with a research budget to do an efficiency evaluation on the company's products, should the company have a say on whether the results should be published in academic periodicals?

The above question was a hotly debated topic at health economics discussion groups on the Internet in January and February of this year.

Coincidentally, the Atlantic Monthly ran an article in its February issue, headlined "The Kept University." The article probed into how US universities are gradually being "kept" by the business sector. The authors of the article, Eyal Press and Jennifer Washburn, provided several examples and statistics to support their observation.

The first example was that in November 1998 the Swiss pharmaceutical company Novartis provided US$25 million to UC-Berkeley's Department of Plant and Microbial Biology, on condition that the university transfer patent rights on one third of the research results to company. The department was also required to set up a five-member research committee to review applications for research projects, two of whose members had to be Novartis employees.

The deal triggered fierce debates among professors from the College of Natural Resources, to which the department belongs. The focus of the debate was whether UC-Berkeley should have "sold out" its academic independence.

According to a study by Mildred Cho, a bioethics scholar from Stanford University (published in the 1996 Annals of Internal Medicine), 98 percent of drug evaluations done with corporate support reached conclusions favorable to the drugs. In contrast, only 79 percent of evaluations done with government or independent NGO funding reached favorable conclusions.

Another survey, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, also reached a similar conclusion. The study found that the proportion of negative results found in evaluations funded by pharmaceutical manufacturers was only one-eighth of that in similar evaluations funded by non-manufacturers.

A separate study on research already published shows that about one-third of the authors have economic interests in the research projects they undertake.

A common phenomenon is that when corporations donate money to universities for courses by visiting professors, the donations are often attached to conditions lsuch as the professor's field of research and the number of hours he or she should spend on specific services or activities each week. For example, Kmart's donation to the University of West Virginia required the professor to spend 30 days each year training Kmart's branch managers.

In this way, corporations are able to use donations to manipulate research, courses and even other activities of the universities. Most US universities now see this as a matter of course. With state governments cutting financial support for state universities by the year, we find it difficult to blame state universities for "embracing" corporate sponsors and selling out their souls.

These figures and examples led the authors of the Atlantic article to an important question: will society begin to see universities as "corporate mercenaries" instead of academic institutions supposed to safeguard truth and objectivity?

On Feb. 23, the China Times reported that Taiwan's Ministry of Education has come up with the idea of a government-owned, privately-run university (公辦民營大學). The next day, the paper ran an editorial on the issue. This model seems to have been inspired by the US' higher education system. While we are still discussing the pros and cons of government-owned, privately-run universities, the US is already taking the lead in this trend. An increasing number of universities now own businesses (Stanford, Johns Hopkins, Minnesota, and New York, etc). Stanford even plans to roll out "Stanford" brand products and compete with other brand names.

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