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Ralph Nader > In the Public Interest > Profit-Seeking Corporations Subvert University Research

The first issue of “Thought and Action” — the National Education Association’s (NEA) higher education journal — is devoted the growing involvement and control by commercial companies over University research and priorities. This trend is troubling and enriching different members of faculties at these institutions. But too little public attention is being focused on the consequences to academic freedom and to the interests of citizens.

In an overview to the issue, Susan Waugh writes: “Today we hear with increasing regularity that knowledge is a commodity, education an industry, learning an asset, research an enterprise. When the language of commerce so thoroughly saturates discourse on education, the question we can no longer evade is whether the higher education community has succumbed to values more appropriate to an oligarchy.

No longer are companies content with hiring a Professor as a part-time consultant. Companies are plunging into a hotly competitive race to sign up Universities and faculty to long-term contracts.

Hoechst, A.G., the large West German pharmaceutical firm has committed $70 million to the Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital in return for the right to market discoveries made in Harvard’s Department of Molecular Biology, also funded in part by Hoechst. Monsanto has signed a similar agreement with Washington University Medical School in St. Louis. At Yale, the Celanese corporation provided $1.1 million for enzyme research in exchange for exclusive rights to resulting patents. Exxon has provided $8 million for M.I.T.’s combustion project in return for a royalty-free license to any inventions.

Stanford University has attracted over 16 companies, including General Electric, TRW, IBM, IT&T, Honeywell and Texas Instruments, to invest in its Center for Integrated Systems. Carnegie-Mellon is working on robotics for Westinghouse and Rensselaer Polytechnic on automation for IBM, GE, Grumman, Lockheed and Bethlehem Steel. Over 300 other companies are spending millions of dollars at Universities on bio-engineering and plant breeding.

Retired Professor Irwin Stark, who cited these examples, says that what is at stake is “the university’s intellectual capital, which resides in its faculty. Who will control this capital? Will it serve society or national and multinational corporations — or both? Seventy five years ago, Onward Bates, president of the American Society of Civil Engineers, cautioned that the engineer was “becoming a tool of those whose aim it is to control men and profit from their knowledge.”

Such caution has now been thrown to the winds. Under the pressures of declining federal aid, fast-changing technology and a vocational tidal wave sweeping higher education, Universities are in danger of losing their autonomous identities for open communication, respect for dissenting views and elevation of important values such as justice, health and safety away from domination by mercantile systems.

Scientists, who have not yet contracted themselves out to companies, are complaining about the erosion of free and exchange of research discoveries between colleagues. The National Commission on Research’s director observes that “the business concepts of secretiveness and proprietary control are anathema to the academic community.

Questions of conflicts of interest, loss of control over faculty appointments and the direction of research were raised during the bitter controversy at M.I.T. three years ago arising out of corporate executive, E.C. Whitehead’s multimillion arrangement with that institution.

David Noble writes that the taxpayers’ investment in many of these universities are being converted to unaccountable private profit-making ventures. Contributor, Leonard Minsky points to the essential need for universities “to affirm and reaffirm the value of independent critique of the corporate elite,” — a role that is being worn down by what he calls “greed in the groves.”

Practically, all this means less science for the people. If GM and Monsanto are powers on campus, what is the likelihood that university engineers and biologists will work on “unapproved” ways to build safer and less polluting automobiles or to control pests? The chemical companies sway at University agricultural departments in the past generation demonstrates the distorting effect of research that favors chemical pesticides over safer biological or natural ways. A lot is at stake for the well-being of citizens when universities slide into corporate grips.

Readers interested in a copy of the NEA’s report on Research and the Academy can write to NEA, 1201 16th Street, NW, Washington, D.C.20036.