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Science and money

The Dong case was an extreme one: a bad contract that should never have been signed, and a company trying to hide results with no apparent justification other than worries about profit. Other conflicts like this can and do arise, but the more common concern is not direct conflict, but conflict of interest.

This idea -- that money might influence research outcomes -- is gaining more attention as profit-making companies pour ever greater amounts of cash into basic and applied research. A total of US$1.9 billion in research funding flowed from industry to academia in 1997, and the 1998 efforts of university technology transfer offices (which shepherd university inventions into the private sector) are estimated to have generated $34 billion of activity, supporting 280,000 American jobs. "This is a significant business for us, as it is for many research universities," says Chris Scott, UCSF’s assistant vice-chancellor for research affairs.

It all started 20 years ago, when the Bayh/Dole act declared that universities could patent the results of federally-funded research. Since then the research-results auction has been an ongoing and ever-expanding bazaar, and Scott says that isn’t going to stop any time soon. "The train is out of the station on this," he says. "We have to face the reality that company science and academic science are closely linked. The question is not whether we should be doing the collaboration with industry but how."

Scott was interviewed for an article in the Atlantic Monthly that questioned this financial interdependence, and not so subtly called for it to end. But Scott says, "If we were to take [the magazine’s] advice we would stop biotech in its tracks. If we had taken their advice twenty years ago Silicon Valley would still be an orchard."

Not that Scott is hoping for unlimited industry involvement. "For places that are the nucleating areas for new discovery you have to be careful not to migrate away from discovery science," he says. "We don’t want to become a scientific contract house for companies."

Meanwhile the university must look out for the dangers that go with greater company involvement. "Are we making some sort of Faustian bargain?" asks Scott. "Is the bargain somehow affecting the objectivity of university scientists?"

For the answer to that question, we have to turn to the researchers who research the researchers.


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