Tuesday, April 21

Private Industry in Academics


Here is an article from Discovery Magazine (Oct 2007 issue) by Jennifer Washburn. It talks more about the industry of science. The subject of private industry meeting the academic world is presented. In today’s world, the trend is for universities to receive funding from private companies in the hopes that the results from the research will benefit the company. The article points out that there are instances when the professors have either worked at that company or own stock in that company, which creates a conflict of interest. On the other hand, the joining of private industry and universities will create a connection for information to travel through. This would provide the students with an applicable experience while still in school, as well as preparing them for work in the “real world”. The companies will also benefit by receiving up-to-date information on the area of research.
However, there is a huge debate on what information is released to the public. Since much of the work is done at public universities, it is under the specific university, and more generally, the government’s jurisdiction. When the private companies begin to put money into the university’s research, the dilemma of HOW the research is used becomes an issue. The private company will want to publish only the information that will benefit their agenda, while the university will want to publish all of their findings so that the knowledge can be spread to others in that same area of study. So what is typically done in these situations? Many companies will use just the research that is beneficial to them…but is this sending the wrong message? Yes. They should be releasing ALL of the information about the research so that the public can have the opportunity to fully understand the situation. But by using only part of the research that is conducted at the universities, isn’t this sending the wrong message to the students that will soon be in the workforce doing their own projects? Will they think that it is okay to just release the information that benefits the company the most instead of looking out for the best interest of the public?

From page 4, “The dilemma, says Eric Campbell of Harvard, is that industry partnerships yield many positive benefits: funding opportunities, the conversion of knowledge into products that benefit the public, rewards for inventors, jobs, economic growth. On the other hand, “the fundamental reason the public invests in science is out of the belief that it represents truth, untainted by commercial interests,” he says. “So to call that into question, I think, is really one of the great risks.’” The universities and the students attending them will have more research opportunity by collaborating with private companies. The big question that arises from this is… Does the collaboration present the public with an accurate representation of the situation? I think that is doesn’t present the information in a truthful manner. How are we, as the public, supposed come to an accurate conclusion when we don’t have complete information? If we are looking at this using the “problems” in Kitcher’s book, there are two problems that relate to this situation.

First, is the Problem of Inadequate Representation:

When the only information about the research that is being presented is in favor of the company’s agenda, the company is neglecting the interest of the public by not properly informing them of possible problems. The company’s main goal is to promote their project/product. Therefore, they are only going to represent the beneficial views of the research. This is unbalanced representation.

The second problem is Problem of Tyranny of the Ignorant:

The public is not being informed of ALL of the conclusions of the research. So, how are they supposed to fully understand the situation? They will under-value certain aspects of the research that may actually have great significance, but since they have been poorly educated on the subject due to the company’s agenda, they may come to an unsuitable conclusion.

It is a difficult task to decide if privately funded research at universities is ethical. I think it will depend on the specific university, the research that is being done, and the individuals involved with that research (due to a possible conflict of interest). I think that there are many instances of misrepresentation of the information, mainly from the company’s perspective. However, I do think there are many cases when the research that comes from these collaborations will benefit the public, and outweigh the negative outcomes. So, we should not rule out the possibility of private-and-academic research in the future. What do you think?

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