The Corruption of Academic Research

Synthetic insulin crystals synthesized using r...

Synthetic insulin crystals synthesized using recombinant DNA technology (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) fields are supposed to be the new darlings of the academy, so I was slightly surprised when I heard an NPR piece on how researchers are struggling for funding. After all, even the politicians devoted to cutting education funding have spoken glowingly of STEM. My own university recently split the venerable College of Arts & Sciences, presumably to allow more money to flow to STEM without risking that professors in the soft sciences and the humanities might inadvertently get some of the cash. As such I was somewhat curious about this problem, but mostly attributed it to a side-effect of the general trend of defunding public education. Then I read “Bad Science” by Llewellyn Hinkes-Jones. This article was originally published in issue 14, 2014 of Jacobin Magazine. I will focus on the ethical aspects of the matters Hinkes-Jones discussed in this article, which is centered on the Bayh-Dole Act.

The Bayh-Dole Act was passed in 1980 and was presented as having very laudable goals. Before the act was passed, universities were limited in regards to what they could do with the fruits of their scientific research. After the act was passes, schools could sell their patents or engage in exclusive licensing deals with private companies (that is, monopolies on the patents). Supporters asserted this act would be beneficial in three main ways. The first is that it would secure more private funding for universities because corporations would provide money in return for the patents or exclusive licenses. The second is that it would bring the power of the profit motive to public research: since researchers and schools could profit, they would be more motivated to engage in research. The third is that the private sector would be motivated to implement the research in the form of profitable products.

On the face of it, the act was a great success. Researchers at Columbia University patented the process of DNA cotransfrormation and added millions to the coffers of the school. A patent on recombinant DNA earned Stanford over $200 million. Companies, in turn, profited greatly. For example, researchers at the University of Utah created Myriad Genetics and took ownership of their patent on the BRCA1 and BRCA2 tests for breast cancer. The current cost of the test is $4,000 (in comparison a full sequencing of human DNA costs $1,000) and the company has a monopoly on the test.

Given these apparent benefits, it is easy enough to advance a utilitarian argument in favor of the act and its consequences. After all, if allows universities to fund their research and corporations to make profits, then its benefits would seem to be considerable, thus making it morally good. However, a proper calculation requires considering the harmful consequences of the act.

The first harm is that the current situation imposes a triple cost on the public. One cost is that the taxpayers fund the schools that conduct the research. The next is that thanks to the monopolies on patents the taxpayers have to pay whatever prices the companies wish to charge, such as the $4,000 for a test that should cost far less. In an actual free market there would be competition and lower prices—but what we have is a state controlled and regulated market. Ironically, those who are often crying the loudest against government regulation and for the value of competition are quite silent on this point.  The final cost of the three is that the corporations can typically write off their contributions on their taxes, thus leaving other taxpayers to pick up their slack. These costs seem to be clear harms and do much to offset the benefits—at least when looked at from the perspective of the whole society and not just focusing on those reaping the benefits.

The second harm is that, ironically, this system makes research more expensive. Since processes, strains of bacteria and many other things needed for research are protected by monopolistic patents the researchers who do not hold these patents have to pay to use them. The costs are usually quite high, so while the patent holders benefit, research in general suffers. In order to pay for these things, researchers need more funding, thus either imposing more cost on taxpayers or forcing them to turn to private funding (which will typically result in more monopolistic patents).

The third harm is the corruption of researchers. Researchers are literally paid to put their names on positive journal articles that advance the interests of corporations. They are also paid to promote drugs and other products while presenting themselves as researchers rather than paid promoters. If the researchers are not simply bought, the money is clearly a biasing factor. Since we are depending on these researchers to inform the public and policy makers about these products, this is clearly a problem and presents a clear danger to the public good.

A fourth harm is that even the honest researchers who have not been bought are under great pressure to produce “sexy science” that will attract grants and funding. While it has always been “publish or perish” in modern academics, the competition is even fiercer in the sciences now. As such, researchers are under great pressure to crank out publications. The effect has been rather negative as evidenced by the fact that the percentage of scientific articles retracted for fraud is ten times what it was in 1975. Once lauded studies and theories, such as those driving the pushing of antioxidants and omega-3, have been shown to be riddled with inaccuracies.  Far from driving advances in science, the act has served as an engine of corruption, fraud and bad science. This would be bad enough, but there is also the impact on a misled and misinformed public. I must admit that I fell for the antioxidant and omega-3 “research”—I modified my diet to include more antioxidants and omega-3. While this bad science does get debunked, the debunking takes a long time and most people never hear about it. For example, how many people know that the antioxidant and omega-3 “research” is flawed and how many still pop omega-3 “fish oil pills” and drink “antioxidant teas”?

A fifth harm is that universities have rushed to cash in on the research, driven by the success of the research schools that have managed to score with profitable patents. However, setting up research labs aimed at creating million dollar patents is incredibly expensive. In most cases the investment will not yield the hoped for returns, thus leaving many schools with considerable expenses and little revenue.

To help lower costs, schools have turned to employing adjuncts to do the teaching and research, thus creating a situation in which highly educated but very low-paid professionals are toiling away to secure millions for the star researchers, the administrators and their corporate benefactors. It is, in effect, sweat-shop science.

This also shows another dark side to the push for STEM: as the number of STEM graduates increase, the value of the degrees will decrease and wages for the workers will continue to fall. This is great for the elite, but terrible for those hoping that a STEM degree will mean a good job and a bright future.

These harms would seem to outweigh the alleged benefits of the act, thus indicating it is morally wrong. Naturally, it can be countered that the costs are worth it. After all, one might argue, the incredible advances in science since 1980 have been driven by the profit motive and this has been beneficial overall. Without the profit motive, the research might have been conducted, but most of the discoveries would have been left on the shelves. The easy and obvious response is to point to all the advances that occurred due to public university research prior to 1980 as well as the research that began before then and came to fruition.

While solving this problem is a complex matter, there seem to be some easy and obvious steps. The first would be to restore public funding of state schools. In the past, the publicly funded universities drove America’s worldwide dominance in research and helped fuel massive economic growth while also contributing to the public good. The second would be replacing the Bayh-Dole Act with an act that would allow universities to benefit from the research, but prevent the licensing monopolies that have proven so damaging. Naturally, this would not eliminate patents but would restore competition to what is supposed to be a competitive free market by eliminating the creation of monopolies from public university research. The folks who complain about the state regulating business and who praise the competitive free market will surely get behind this proposal.

It might also be objected that the inability to profit massively from research will be a disincentive. The easy and obvious reply is that people conduct research and teach with great passion for very little financial compensation. The folks that run universities and corporations know this—after all, they pay such people very little yet still often get exceptional work. True, there are some people who are solely motivated by profit—but those are typically the folks who are making the massive profit rather than doing the actual research and work that makes it all possible.

 

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12 Comments.

  1. Mike raises several issues that flavour attitudes to the funding of academic research that are sadly in the ascendent. Here in the UK, the debate was stirred early in the period of Margaret Thatcher’s government of the 1980s. Two of the technologies absolutely fundamental to modern biotech, in both basic research and commercial sectors, were discovered or significantly developed at the Molecular Biology Laboratory (‘MBL’) at Cambridge University. MBL was, and still is, funded by the UK’s Medical Research Council. (MRC is the government’s key funding council for biomedical research both in its own labs and in universities and NHS hospitals). These two discoveries were Monoclonal Antibody and Recombinant DNA technologies. The entire methodolgy and the theoretical underpinning for monoclonal antibody production in particular is attributable to the scientists at the MRC Unit (key amongst whom were Cesar Milstein and Georges Köhler who won the Nobel Prize in 1984 for their work).

    But nothing was patented. (Milstein has engagingly commented: “Science will only fulfill its promises when the benefits are equally shared by the really poor of the world”). For Thatcher’s Conservative government, this ‘failure to capitalise’ was regarded as catastrophic. It led to public enquiries and resulted in heavyweight policy shifts in UK academia that still hold sway. However, for many others, this example of open publication represents the alternative path for society’s enrichment through research.

    The ‘unintended consequences’ that Mike spells out for the patent-income stream-academic funding pathway that conventional capitalist thinking favours are well described. As with any thoughtful scientist, Milstein identified the context in which he worked as critical for his advances. This includes the immediate environment at MBL where his work was done. It also includes the extensive underpining in both theory and technique that had been produced by so many others across bioscience worldwide. But the ‘invention’ concept that underpins the patent as a means of capitalising (literally and metaphorically) on ‘discovery’ does not fit with that deeper realisation of how research actually works.

    Mike rightly flags the multiple risks, the moral hazards as he notes, that are soon revealed by a more thorough ‘cost-benefit’ analysis of the naive ‘business-savvy’ model of research. Not least amongst these is the risk of killing golden geese and a decline in the supply of the golden eggs that science has unequivocally represented for Humankind the last hundred years and more.

    One is reminded of the remark, probably apocryphal, attributed to Michael Faraday when the UK Finance Minister (possibly Mr Gladstone) asked about ‘the practical worth of electricity’. Faraday is reported to have said he did not know but “there is every probability that you will soon be able to tax it!”. Faraday, famously without a care for the utility of his work, certainly didn’t patent anything, nor in any standard sense did he benefit personally. As the inventor of the electric motor, the dynamo, of electrolysis and much more, the personal ‘cost’ of his free and open approach to science remains incalculable. That there are motivations other than venal self-interest and other means of wealth generation that are incommensurate with conventional capitalistic accountancy is the lesson from history that favours leaving academic research unbridled.

  2. The academic research environment is worse than it was, especially in medicine and biology, where economic and sociological mechanisms drive those fields to rather caustic (immoral) outcomes.

    I would like to say that people do persevere. Discoveries are made, especially in the physical sciences, and the reward is foremost that of simply knowing as much about the universe before you have to go, and the party goes on without you, as Hitchens would say.

  3. The power of the profit motive poisons everything. It should be confined to goods and some services only. Education, research, housing, (except for the wealthy) and healthcare should be partially public, (tax-payer) funded and free from the maws of profiteers.

    One example is nursing homes. When privatized the staff is cut, the remaining staff have their benefits cut in order to make a profit. The frail elderly are at the mercy of a disgruntled, overtaxed staff.

    Today nothing seems exempt from profiteering. It is a positive thing to make a profit ethically while contributing to growth and prosperity. To derail a system in order to profit is blatantly wrong. There are some things, education and research being two, which should not have to descend from being noble callings to the commerce of the marketplace.

  4. DrCaffeine,

    “That there are motivations other than venal self-interest and other means of wealth generation that are incommensurate with conventional capitalistic accountancy is the lesson from history that favours leaving academic research unbridled.”

    As venality goes, money, and the getting of, is one lesser venality when compared with other sins. They’re are some incredibly nasty people working in science and always have been. Their appetite for money may have already been sated, but they’d like the glory of some major discovery, so posterity would imagine them to be something they were not; great scientists.

    Einstein was so despised by his professors that they wouldn’t give him his teaching certificate. Which is part of his luck. He ends up working at the patent office, seeing lots of patents for radio devices. Max Planck was doing privately funded research for a light bulb company when he serendipitously discovered quantum physics. He also figured out some essential things about light bulbs, that were ever you see a filament light bulb today, you’ll see some, well you’ll get the benefit of, some of Max’s work on light bulbs.

    Bell Labs did some great stuff too.

    Is there something pure about academic institutions. American universities only began to get rid of their Jew bars, and Jew quotas in the 60s. (The quotas were not positive discrimination – they were specifically to limit the number of Jews who could study at the universities).

    It’s a mixed bag. In private research, you could be fired simply because a human resources manager thinks you don’t fit the desired culture of the lab.

  5. Kevin Henderson,

    Fortunately, you are right. The party does go on. But, as you also note, things have grown worse and have caused considerable problems in academics.

  6. “The academic research environment is worse than it was, especially in medicine and biology, where economic and sociological mechanisms drive those fields to rather caustic (immoral) outcomes.”

    Kevin;

    Can you give us some examples to illustrate your statement?

    Thanks

  7. Mike;

    I have worked both in the academic and private sector in biological research for at least 24 years in the USA. In my opinion, the system has deteriorated due to the reduction on grant money for academic research, which generates significant competition that not always creates quality knowledge. The private sector aim is to make money out of research, but they want returns faster than what usually research can provide. This also diminishes the quality and, in the long run, the productivity of research. In spite of these constraint, scientific progress has accelerated in the latest years producing remarkable results, and in my opinion academic research is not corrupted but is pursued in some cases under the wrong incentives

    History taught us that scientific research is critical to human progress and well being, but it has its own requirements. The time it takes to be profitable does not match the ambition of investors. In fact, taking the example of monoclonal antibodies, it took between 10-20 years after the initial discovery to create drugs applicable to human disease. Right now is the fastest growing area in the pharmaceutical industry.

    The pursue of knowledge as a human aspiration is beyond the pursue of financial rewards; it can create significant and most importantly unpredictable well being. This is not always profitable and it does not need to be. Perhaps the great mistake is that everything of value to mankind has to be expressed in dollars or market value. None knew the commercial value of DNA discovery around 1880, or that it carries genetic information in 1924, or the structure of DNA in 1950s, or the genetic code, etc. All this knowledge, and much more is indispensable for the industries generating profit in the area. All this knowledge was created and paid by the public sector, and currently has no commercial value.

    Thanks for all your articles

  8. @ JMRC

    Re: ‘other vanlities’.

    Oh yes, I do agree. Your examples are salutory. In some ways the ruthless drive for fame does seem worse that blatant cash-greed. We are all aware of ‘colleagues’ who will use any method to get ahead of the pack. On the other side, it is a joy to observe that the real high flyers are generally marked by generosity of spirit and action. These folk don’t hold out for ‘being on the paper’ or ‘being on the grant’. They give freely of their expertise, enjoy supporting and helping their juniors in rank and inferiors in intellect and imagination. They earn loyalty, they benefit from it and the common good is advanced. Those of us in research science know that this model works and survives; it’s well worth trumpeting it to a doubting world that increasingly believes (or is told) that ‘cut-throat’ is the only route to success and that destructive competition is the key driver of progress.

  9. Soryy abut “vanlities” back there – I seem to have been half way between the notion of ‘venalities’ and of ‘vanities’! Either will do.

  10. Sorry about “vanlities” back there – I seem to have been half way between the notion of ‘venalities’ and of ‘vanities’! Either will do.

  11. John M,

    Good points. As you note, the results of research conducted now might lie many years or decades in the future. But, the primary model of profits is to profit immediately. One impact of this seems to be researchers touting the efficacy of a medicine or supplement that has been put on the market without doing proper and honest research.

  12. I dare think that you are all wrong. And I had some encounters with corruption.

    Don’t look at capitalism-socialism or money. The real cause of corruption is CHANGE. Simply, scientists were, over the last several decades, replaced by non-scientists, and all administration of science are now crooks. They waged culture wars, science wars and gender wars. They are those who were “discriminated against” before they were born. They have political goals, not any goals in science. They are not studying laws of nature. They are guided by the old masonic maxim: order out of disorder. And they play, play with statistics. Science is now a stupid play, that accommodates the intellect of scientists-idiots hired for political reasons. And, of course, they do fraud.

    See http://www.universitytorontofraud.com

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