Business Interests Continue to Invade University ResearchIn an effort to fill the gap left by budget cuts, many universities are turning to corporations to fund their research projects. A 2008 report from the the American Association of University Professors found that about 6% of all academic research funding is derived from private sources. However, when corporate money used as matching funds for other grants is included, corporations might have a stake in as much as 25% of all university research. A 2012 report released by Food and Water Watch found that nearly a quarter of research funding at land grant universities now comes from corporations, while less than 15% comes from the USDA. In 2005, almost one third of agricultural scientists reported consulting for private industry, and in some cases corporate boards and college leadership overlap. While many experts contend this shift towards corporate sponsorship of research is necessary, a number of academics and analysts are concerned that the science behind their studies will become tainted by corporate influence.
In 2009, a study released by Pennsylvania State University predicted oil drillers would leave Pennsylvania if new taxes were imposed, results that aided lawmakers in their bid to reject a proposed 5% tax increase. However, the study failed to note that it was sponsored by gas drillers and led by economist Tim Considine, a businessman with a long history of producing research that is historically supportive of the energy industry. “It’s a growing problem across academia,” says professor of rural-urban policy at Ohio State University Mark Partridge. “Universities are so short of money, professors are under a lot of pressure to raise research funding in any manner possible.” Indeed, in 1965, the federal government financed more than 60% of all research and development in the US. By 2006, though, 65% of R&D was funded by private interests.
For the corporations that fund university research, the benefits can be far-reaching. By increasing their control on institutions that many in the public revere and trust in for objective research, private corporations can silence or manipulate some of their more vocal and powerful critics. Furthermore, as public-sector scientists become increasingly invested in the success of private industries, they will most likely become less amenable to reforms. “We know from a number of meta-analyses, that corporate funding leads to results that are favorable to the corporate funder,” says Food and Water Watch researcher Tim Schwab. One study found that corporate-funded nutrition research on soft drinks, juice and milk were four to eight times more likely to reach conclusions in line with the sponsor’s interests. Another found that pharmaceutical-industry funded research was four times more likely to reflect favorably on a drug that research financed from other sources.
Yet, despite these concerns, many academics contend that corporate support is necessary in order to ensure scientific progress in the current marketplace. Corporate funding can accelerate the transfer of new knowledge to industry and boost economic growth, and proponents argue that there are safeguards in place at at most universities to ensure that all results are objective. However, privately funded research is subjected to far less oversight than federally funded studies, as their results are not required to be made public.
A 2005 study examining over 100 academic medical centers also found that 35% allowed corporate sponsors to store clinical trial data, releasing only portions to investigators. Meanwhile, 62% allowed the sponsor to alter the study design after the researchers and the sponsor has signed an agreement. As results from these studies contend, while corporate funding may be a necessity in the current marketplace, until protections are in place ensuring unbiased, objective research, the general public must learn to scrutinize the the work of institutions of whom they have come to trust.