Billions of Corporate Dollars Are Hijacking University Research to Help Make Profits
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Nonetheless, some students say that, even with protections in place, the presence of corporate sponsorships on campus impacts decision-making, as more researchers gravitate toward projects that are well-funded and could result in industry jobs down the road. In short, scientific research at the university level is at a crossroads, and the direction UC Berkeley chooses to take will have implications that reach far into the future.
Until the 1940s, all university research was essentially financed by private industry. However, just before the US entered World War II, President Franklin Roosevelt began enlisting academic scientists to support the wartime effort. Shared facilities — in which researchers from across the country collaborated with the US military to develop weapons — were built.
The success of these programs prompted the federal government to rethink its involvement in the sciences. In a 1945 report, "Science: The Endless Frontier," Vannevar Bush, head of the US Office of Scientific Research and Development, explored the possibility of creating government agencies to fund basic research at universities. He argued that "scientific progress is one essential key to our security as a nation, to our better health, to more jobs, to a higher standard of living, and to our cultural progress." Therefore, Bush believed, "the federal government does not only have the authority but, indeed, the obligation to support research, particularly basic research, in universities."
By 1950, the federal government had established a number of agencies to award research grants to universities. And by 1953, it was funding 55 percent of the research performed in US universities. By 1970, it had grown to 70 percent. At that point, industry funded just 3 percent of research conducted at US universities.
The Fifties and Sixties were commonly referred to as the "golden era" of science. Universities made numerous groundbreaking discoveries, and American scientists led the world in the number of Nobel prizes collected.
However, between 1970 and 1995, government funding for research and development fell by more than 50 percent. While it rebounded slightly between 2001 and 2005, it has since resumed its long-term decline. And the recent automatic federal budget cuts known as sequestration could lead to a loss of an additional $8.6 billion in federal research grants in the coming year.
The impacts of the sequester can already be felt at UC Berkeley, where federal support for the sciences has dramatically shrunk for the 2012-2013 academic year. Some UC officials are asking Congress to reconsider these cuts, as they will have a devastating impact on research. "The UC is playing a leading role in our nation's economic recovery, and it's a critical engine of innovation," said Gary Falle, vice president for Federal Governmental Relations at UC. "We will ... continue to advocate for strong funding for basic research so that scientific discoveries can continue to move forward."
In the past three decades, privately funded applied research, however, has skyrocketed at US universities. Between 1985 and 2005, it increased by 250 percent, from $950 million to $2.4 billion.
This explosion of corporate dollars being directed to universities has also sparked controversy and raised concerns about scientific bias. A 2006 investigation by the San Jose Mercury News found that one-third of Stanford University's medical school administrators and department heads reported financial conflicts of interest related to their own research. And another report by the British Medical Journal in 2010 found that pharmaceutical-industry-funded research was four times more likely to reflect favorably on a drug than research not financed by said industry.
The first big public-private partnership came to UC Berkeley in 1997, when the Swiss biotech company Novartis entered a five-year, $25 million contract on GMO research with the biology department. It was the first time that nearly an entire academic department signed an agreement with a single firm.