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How Corporations Like Monsanto Have Hijacked Higher Education

Academic research is often dictated by corporations that endow professorships, give money to universities, and put their executives on education boards.
 
 
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Here’s what happens when corporations begin to control education.

"When I approached professors to discuss research projects addressing organic agriculture in farmer's markets, the first one told me that 'no one cares about people selling food in parking lots on the other side of the train tracks,’” said a PhD student at a large land-grant university who did not wish to be identified. “My academic adviser told me my best bet was to write a grant for Monsanto or the Department of Homeland Security to fund my research on why farmer's markets were stocked with 'black market vegetables' that 'are a bioterrorism threat waiting to happen.' It was communicated to me on more than one occasion throughout my education that I should just study something Monsanto would fund rather than ideas to which I was deeply committed. I ended up studying what I wanted, but received no financial support, and paid for my education out of pocket."

Unfortunately, she's not alone. Conducting research requires funding, and today's research follows the golden rule: The one with the gold makes the rules.

A report just released by Food and Water Watch examines the role of corporate funding of agricultural research at land grant universities, of which there are more than 100. “You hear again and again Congress and regulators clamoring for science-based rules, policies, regulations,” says Food and Water Watch researcher Tim 
Schwab, explaining why he began investigating corporate influence in agricultural research. “So if the rules and regulations and policies are based on science that is industry-biased, then the fallout goes beyond academic articles. It really trickles down to farmer livelihoods and consumer choice.”

The report found that nearly one quarter of research funding at land grant universities now comes from corporations, compared to less than 15 percent from the USDA. Although corporate funding of research surpassed USDA funding at these universities in the mid-1990s, the gap is now larger than ever. What's more, a broader look at all corporate agricultural research, $7.4 billion in 2006, dwarfs the mere $5.7 billion in all public funding of agricultural research spent the same year.

Influence does not end with research funding, however. In 2005, nearly one third of agricultural scientists reported consulting for private industry. Corporations endow professorships and donate money to universities in return for having buildings, labs and wings named for them. Purdue University's Department of Nutrition Science blatantly offers corporate affiliates “corporate visibility with students and faculty” and “commitment by faculty and administration to address [corporate] members' needs,” in return for the $6,000 each corporate affiliate pays annually.

In perhaps the most egregious cases, corporate boards and college leadership overlap. In 2009, South Dakota State's president, for example, joined the board of directors of Monsanto, where he earns six figures each year. Bruce Rastetter is simultaneously the co-founder and managing director of a company called AgriSol Energy and a member of the Iowa Board of Regents. Under his influence, Iowa State joined AgriSol in a venture in Tanzania that would have forcefully removed 162,000 people from their land, but the university later pulled out of the project after public outcry.

What is the impact of the flood of corporate cash? “We know from a number of meta-analyses, that corporate funding leads to results that are favorable to the corporate funder,” says Schwab. For example, one peer-reviewed 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 sponsors' interests. And when a scrupulous scientist publishes research that is unfavorable to the study's funder, he or she should be prepared to look for a new source of funding.

 
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