University of Minnesota

University-Industry Relations: Academic freedom or academic license?

“Confidential draft” of an editorial never published by Henry Blackburn, Thomas Louis, and James White.* April 10, 1989

One of the tenets of Academia is that university faculty are free to pursue scholarly activity according to their desire and their conscience. But academic freedom, as any personal freedom, is always in tension with cultural constraints. Individual liberties are inevitably intertwined with society’s concern for the good of the whole. A focal point of the tension between the two guarantees is the interface of the university and industry. Ever-greater consulting opportunities and possible partnerships with industry increase this tension and the potential for legal, financial, and ethical conflicts in the relationship. The situation is now such that we believe the university, industry, and the larger community must more systematically address together the many issues surrounding these relationships. Conflict of interest  and self-deceived academic “purity” abound. Credibility and moral stance wither. Laissez-faire has had its day.

The advantages for faculty and for the university of relationships with industry are obvious and well established. Thence our sense of need for caution and greater awareness of the complexities and risks in increasingly close university-industry ties. We outline here the reasons for caution and call for more discussion, understanding, planning, and formation of guidelines for the future of such relationships.

Historically, universities have accommodated liaisons between faculty and industry that require only cursory and arbitrary departmental approval. This loose system has been based in part on the view that faculty are both inherently honest and are, as scholars, free to function according to their conscience. In part, it also is based on the view that faculty are deserving and that “outside income” is appropriate in a system where salary advance is restricted in comparison with the commercial world. There also is the rationale that the community gives much to the university and therefore must receive something back. Consultation with industry is, in fact, “giving something back” as well as a normal service function of the university to the community. But the particularly laissez-faire climate of recent years, during a time of great advancement in knowledge and technology, has increased immeasurably the opportunities and forms for faculty relationships with industry. We touch on the main ones and the issues they present.

Consulting has historically been a major faculty interaction with industry. It usually enhances professional contacts and stimulates new ideas for research. It is clearly an advantage to both industry and to the community in a more rapid and effective transfer of knowledge and technology. Faculty living standards (and their children’s education!) are directly affected. And, it is claimed, if people are kept happy in Academia, while relatively underpaid from state coffers, so much the better!

Research contracts are another common form of faculty relationships with industry with clear advantage to those pursuing novel, thus “unfundable,” research fields. “Establishment (fundable) research,” by definition, is not at the edge of innovation. And industry money is relatively “easy money,” generally without peer-review or delay and by a process as simple as a letter, telephone call, or visit from a company rep to look over facilities and discuss plans. Many practical issues of importance to the community and to industry represent “pedestrian research” to faculty and may be performed with minimal complexity and delay (e.g. toxicity testing of drugs and comparative efficacy of similar drugs, etc.).

Flexibility in obtaining and using industry funds is paramount. Even when administered through the university business office there are fewer constraints to use of industry funding for numerous unfunded professional activities such as salaries for reseach assistants, purchase of major equipment, work-related travel, journal subscriptions, and supplies. And grants from industry are often accepted by the university without the large overhead charges as for government grants.

Industry partnerships to develop and promote new products offer direct emoluments as they forward the economy or, on occasion, even the public health. But in certain technical fields “big money” deals are possible, on which whole departments, institutes, and colleges are built and maintained by single industries or consortia promoting commercially successful products. The inventiveness of university engineers, physiologists, and microbiologists has led to intense and profitable faculty-industry relationships and new products, enhancing, in turn, the size and scope of the partnerships.

A recent study by Karen Seashore Louis and Minnesota colleagues finds that most of the faculty of eastern universities is heavily involved with industry in which their institutions get a major piece of the pie. These relationship include faculty actually owning companies that produce and market their inventions, always with a cut to the university. Such ventures are now acceptable either within the older traditional framework of community service or under the newer and popular idea of “technology transfer.” Various university-industry partnerships for mutual profit now become primary goals of the university and community. Newly constituted university offices of research and technology transfer and whole institutes encourage and facilitate this activity as their main function!

But along with these exciting and prospering developments we see the emergence of disturbing phenomena that create a need for attention to long-term consequences for academia in such enterprise. We foresee instances where investigators’ personal interest in a company or product comes into direct conflict with the public interest and academic mores. A few flagrant abuses have reached national attention, affected the reputations of faculty, and put in question the operations and motives of the university.

Such conflicts and abuses came under regulatory review in the January 20, 1989 NIH Guide for Grants and Contracts with a report that the NIH “is taking steps to develop appropriate guidelines about financial interests of participating investigators and consultants and organizations in entities that produce drugs, devices, or other interventions studied in a controlled clinical trial. . . Growing expressions of public concern suggest that the NIH act to limit possibilities 

for actual or apparend financial conflicts of interest by investigators in research and development projects funded by NIH extramural awards. Of particular concern are circumstances that might affect investigators’ objectivity, or where researchers might unduly influence or be perceived to influence NIH R & D projects in directions favorable to personal financial interests of themselves, their spouses, children, close professional associates, or organizations where they have appointments or other relationships.”


Arnold Relman, then Editor of the New England Journal of Medicine, asserted at the 1989 annual meeting of the AAAS, that because many biomedical researchers are ”physician scientists who are viewed as trusted fiduciaries and counselors to patients and the public, they should not have an ongoing commercial stake in products that directly concern the public health and safety.” Relman suggested that research institutions establish “openly stated policy prohibiting researchers from having an ongoing commercial stake in products marketed by universities or private industry.”(The Blue Sheet, January 25, 1989)

But beyond such clear conflicts and abuses and such major proscriptions, we discern other more subtle effects and larger problems that require thoughtful long-term consideration by the university and scientific community. For example, faculty energies and institutional resources are increasingly diverted toward industry research and financial enterprise and away from traditional teaching, research, and patient care. Still greater concern is for less visible effects of industry relationships on faculty and institutional behavior and public policy. More serious still, because more subtle, is erosion of scientific credibility because of faculty identification with industry and specific companies or products. Some institutions are now perceived to have “sold out” to industry. Not only the image but also the values of academia are interdependent. Academia, among the last bastions of freedom in a complex and bureaucratic society, may have its freedom of thought and action abrogated  by increasing interdependence with industry.

For example, there has been a perception that one school of public health is “sold out” to industry because much of its buildings and program came from heavy contributions of the cereal industry. Wide knowledge of  such a source of support creates perceptions that faculty of that school take particular stands about the danger of toxic residues in foods or fail to take stands about disease-enhancing effects of other aspects of the American diet. That school’s opinions and positions are tainted because its large and particular industry support is well known. Whether that perception is justified is no longer the question; its credibility on food, nutrition and health policy is impaired.

Thus, we consider it high time to weigh what Academia is gaining in opportunity, support, and influence for the common good against what it is losing in independence and credibility. What happens when the academic process becomes driven by the motives of industry based on the bottom line of profit? Or when the resources of the university and an “anointed faculty” are so stretched that they are no longer fully available to their students and patients or to traditional, non-industry supported research? Will legislatures remain concerned about its university’s resources or faculty salaries if industry is ”taking care” of us? When will industry ties reach a point where a true exchange of ideas is oppressed or perverted? Are safeguards and guidelines possible for university-industry relationships that are consonant with academic freedom? Should the University recognize that individual conscience is not the sole or sufficient determinant of faculty behavior and enterprise, though always the most important? Is “academic freedom” the only institutional framework within which faculty decisions should be made about outside pursuits? Does academic freedom really mean the freedom for an individual to make any and all decisions to carry out any and all activity, or to develop any kind of partnership with industry, constrained only by legal advice under departmental authority and perfunctory review? Can academic freedom survive out of context of eroded faculty commitment and diminished institutional credibility? When does academic freedom become academic license?

How can the university be held accountable for public perceptions about its portfolio investments in particular companies while its individual faculty are not similarly accountable for perceptions of, or actual conflict of interest, personal gain or special influence? Are there valid arguments for the university not being involved with certain industries, say the defense, chemical, tobacco, alcohol, or food industries?

We propose that the time is already late for greater airing of these issues, for more planning, and for clearer guidelines. Based on direct experience, we hold particular concerns for the activities of the health sciences. We ponder the subtle effects on scientific statements made and policy positions taken by faculty when they are in the debt of industry. Some are in institutions where the primary mission is promotion of health and public policy in contrast to patient and medical technology. Schools of public health are joining the trend to more consultation with industry and industry-supported research. They also advise industry on health messages with the implied university endorsement of particular foods and commercial products. Even when these are likely to promote the public health, this may not be the best long-term strategy because of the risk to university independence and credibility.

In the university’s response to these many challenges it seems likely that the legalities of university-business relationships can be worked out to include implied endorsement, consultation, and patents such that faculty and university are protected from liability and such that the university and other agencies that support basic research get their fair share of credit.

But over and above the strictly legal issues of conflict of interest and liability, are the values, mission, and credibility of a university; the urgently needed ethical and policy guidelines to faculty and institutional behavior in forming and sustaining partnerships with industry. We propose a creative continuing forum for open and active discussion of these issues. We now find faculty understanding of the issues is insufficiently aware of the complexities, pitfalls, and potential for unrecognized bias and loss of credibility.  There is little literature on the subject. Currently, this university and local industry are pioneering a new economically based system of acquiring knowledge and promoting applications of its research, but in the absence of pioneering in the philosophy, ethics and procedures of such relationships. We propose that this university seek to re-examine and clarify its mission and reemphsize its values, against which the appropriateness of increased industry relationa can best be evaluated.

We believe universities can preserve individual academic freedom, actively encourage  faculty and provide the mechanisms for peer-reviewed systems of industry funding. If research support is to come from industry, a successful track record for such a system will invariably redound to the credit and vitality of the faculty and the institution. A university can discourage without directly forbidding faculty from engaging in other forms of industry-sponsored operations. Schools can insist on mechanisms for faculty to dissociate themselves from the university when they choose to devote greater energies to commercial enterprise, thereby reducing the risk to faculty and institutional credibility. Finally, schools can encourage faculty to arrive more thoughtfully at their individual decisions about industry relations and their academic careers.

The scientific community needs now to reconsider how the preservation of institutional integrity and high public respect and public funding for the university weighs against preserving “academic freedom” as currently defined with unfettered university-industry relationships. The university as a whole needs to decide on principle whether close relationships with industry are in their long-term best interests or are worth the price, and to decide what degree and mechanisms of funding and collaboration with industry are acceptable and desirable. Long-term university goals require careful structuring of industry sources and mechanisms of funding. And industry support should not get to the point where administrators and legislators rely on it over traditional forms of funding. This becomes increasingly likely as the university becomes institutionally more involved with industry.

Others who also care deeply about the university will disagree with our view and guided approach. We hope they might share, however, the idea that the university community must address more thoughtfully than in the past what is its mission and what are its values and whether these are met within the existing laissez-faire approach to “academic freedom.” Does the accelerating unguided pace of “academic freedom” tend toward academic license? Let us carefully examine the issues and plot the course.

* University of Minnesota Schools of Public Health and of Medicine.

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