Ethical Implications of For-Profit Corporate Sponsorship of Research

Article excerpt


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,[8] 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. [6] 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.[3] 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.[4] 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. …


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