ETHICAL IMPLICATIONS OF FOR-PROFIT CORPORATE SPONSORSHIP OF RESEARCH
Academic institutions and commercial companies both recognize the need for the United States to enhance its economic competitiveness worldwide. Improved trading status is linked, in part, to education and to research and development (R&D) as cooperative efforts between nonprofit colleges and universities and for-profit corporations. As more and more colleges and universities seek for-profit corporate sponsors for their research programs, their collaboration may be complicated by several ethical issues. Most of these issues arise because of the differences between academic and corporate missions. This paper emphasizes that these differences are not irreconciliable; indeed, there are many successful research partnerships between academia and for-profit corporations. With a solid understanding of each partner's mission, productive corporate sponsorship of academic research is possible.
Corporations have been funding university research for decades. In 1970, their support totaled $61 million; by 1980 it had grown to $277 million; and by 1985 it was $482 million (in constant 1982 dollars).[5,8] Although corporate research contracts account for less than 10 percent of the total research funds at universities, this support is an important contribution to the research enterprise in colleges and universities and must be administered appropriately.
For the purposes of this discussion, professional ethics, according to a committee of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), "refers to those principles that are intended to define the rights and responsibilities of scientists in their relationships with each other and with other parties including employers, research subjects, clients, students, etc.  The basic ethical premise behind all research is a predominant commitment to the good of humanity.(7) This sounds simple, but the difficulty is in negotiating between the "good" of not-for-profit academia and the "good" of for-profit industry.
The Two Missions
Universities and colleges focus on the education of students, the pursuit of scholarship and basic research, and service to the community. Research conducted by faculty should be of the highest quality and be totally impartial. University laboratories are essentially "open." Discoveries are widely broadcast to any interested party through publications and presentations. This openness permits review and scrutiny by a scientist's peers, thereby ensuring the quality of the research.
The For-Profit Corporation
Profit-making corporations are geared toward developing commercial products and services. "Giving" money away is not part of the corporate ethos. Their R&D efforts are applied in nature. These organizations often go to great lengths to maintain secrecy about their R&D activities, thus capitalizing on the product or service and maximizing profits.
The continuum of research activity shows the polarized nature of academic and for-profit corporate orientations. This author believes that both ends are necessary to fuel a productive and competitive economy.
FUNDAMENTAL APPLIED (Academic Sector) (Industrial Sector) Basic Developmental Idea Oriented Intensely Product/Process Oriented Quest for Knowledge Need Based Unforeseen Utilization Immediate Utilization Discovery of Knowledge Exploitation of Knowledge
Where Their Interests Overlap
Both academic institutions and commercial companies recognize the need for the United States to enhance its economic competitiveness in the international community. This will involve both R&D and education of the general population. Academic and business communities are committed to a world where individuals are enlightened, productive, prosperous, and at peace. Both communities recognize that many benefits are gained from cooperation. Corporations benefit in three ways. First, they draw upon the expertise of university faculty, staff, and students in their capacities as researchers, consultants, and future employees. Second, corporations also effectively use the teaching mission of colleges and universities to educate and train their current employees. Many corporations offer time and/or financial assistance to employees who enroll in courses or programs applicable to their career development and the corporation's interests. Finally, corporations can take advantage of the service mission of colleges and universities by using on-campus consulting services, libraries, and other reference services.
Colleges and universities benefit by receiving private gifts of dollars for programs, research, and scholarships. They share corporate facilities and equipment. Also, corporation personnel serve as adjunct faculty at colleges and universities, introducing "real world" aspects to students. Cooperative relationships provide research and consulting opportunities for college and university faculty and staff and prepare students for future employment.
These arrangements allow the college or university to serve the needs of their for-profit corporate constituents. A 1985 American Council on Education (ACE) study surveyed 1,933 institutions of higher education and found that most of them had informal links with the profit-making community: 85 percent had joint meetings or advisory panels, 75 percent shared programs and donated or loaned equipment, 65 percent received financial support for research, and 63 percent had scholarship or loan programs in place.
Where Their Interests Conflict
With the obvious benefits of academic-industrial relationships, what possible ethical conflicts could arise? How might academic researchers find themselves in an ethical dilemma regarding their interactions with the sponsor, their peers, their students, and their subjects? The areas of ethical conflict can be summarized as follows:
1. Corporate influence on research topics; 2. Corporate concern with secrecy and resulting publication restrictions; 3. Ownership of patent rights; 4. Interpreting research results in a way that will not reflect unfavorably on
the sponsor; and 5. Conflict of interest issues with faculty members.
The leading ethical issue is why a for-profit corporation would fund research that will not result in a product or proprietary process. It seems unlikely that a for-profit corporation would sponsor research that could not result in a product or process that could be commercialized. Thus, a corporate sponsor will try to exercise as much influence as possible over the choice of a research topic or path. Universities have criticized industry for forcing projects they support to have a narrow focus toward a specific technical goal.(9) Result of a 1986 Harvard University study of biotechnology faculty members at 40 major U.S. universities indicated that faculty members taking part in industry-sponsored research were four times as likely to say their research topic was influenced by possible commercial applications as were their non-industry funded colleagues.(8)
Another key issue is proprietary information. Why would a for-profit corporation fund a research project if any discoveries could end up in a competitor's hands? The concern with secrecy can put an academic researcher in the position of being asked to delay publication of results until the corporate sponsor can either review the publication and suggest alternative ways of reporting vital information or can protect the discovery through a patent. Are these delays consistent with the university's goal of open communication? The Harvard study noted above also reported that faculty members at half of the institutions surveyed had achieved research results that belonged to the sponsor and could not be published without the sponsor's consent.
Issues of patent ownership can also lead to conflict. Who owns patent rights? Federal law allows universities to keep patent rights to inventions resulting from federally-sponsored research, but no such law exists for private support. Many universities are attempting to generate income from patents. Should the for-profit corporation that sponsored the research own all patent rights, or should it negotiate with the university for licenses?
Another issue involves the interpretation and presentation of data in a publication. If researchers are receiving corporate support for their research, will they present interpretations unfavorable to the sponsor? This could jeopardize future support-a very real pressure for researchers whose grants support laboratories, graduate students, and other associates.
Conflict of interest can be a difficult ethical issue in for-profit corporate sponsorship of research. Researchers employed by academic institutions might have consulting contracts with commercial companies. How does the researcher distinguish between intellectual information that belongs to the company and information that belongs to the university (and ultimately to the public)? Can (or should) a university impose limitations on a faculty member's outside effort, and how strict should disclosure requirements be? Can a faculty member hold equity or office in a sponsor's organization and still be impartial in his or her research?
How Can Universities and For-Profit Corporate Sponsors Work
Universities and corporations need each other. Each can offer something that the other does not have (e.g., expertise and financial resources). Cooperative arrangements can bring the best of both not-for-profit and for-profit organizations together to work for the ultimate public good. Yet, how do they overcome their ethical conflicts?
To become active partners in research, for-profit corporations and academia must focus " . . . on the commonalities and productive nature of such partnerships."(1) Each party must fully understand the basic mission of the other. The college or university must acknowledge the profit-making needs of the corporation, which in turn must recognize the college's or university's need to preserve openness and sharing of information. To achieve this understanding there must be open communication and cooperation between the organizations. One example of cooperation might be negotiation of reasonable publication delays. Also, for-profit corporations can participate in choices of possible research topics, although the ultimate decision needs to be made by the researchers, since they are responsible for the integrity of the research and are answerable to their scientific peers. Openly communicating this to the for-profit sponsor is crucial if an acceptable agreement is to be reached.
Conflict of interest issues are becoming more and more important and complex. Federal agencies such as the National Institutes of Health (NIH) have published guidelines on conflict of interest. Colleges and universities must develop their own guidelines for resolution of conflict of interest and provide some parameters for dealing with this issue as faculty and the institution engage in research sponsored by for-profit organizations.
Dealing with the ethical implications of for-profit corporate sponsorship of academic research requires open communication between all parties and serious negotiations on conflicting issues. Each entity must take the time to understand the ultimate goals and mission of the other if these negotiations are to succeed. Each should focus on shared goals and then work together to achieve them. Combining the best of both entities will result in a strong project designed to achieve the common goal. When both parties are in agreement on and committed to this arrangement, later negotiations on ethical issues will be grounded on agreement, not dispute, and should proceed in the spirit of cooperation. If academic institutions and corporations are to work together to enhance the nation's competitiveness, they must learn to understand and listen to each other so that their negotiations will result in sponsorship agreements acceptable to both parties.
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