My friend Virgy at times feels university research is “bought and paid for” by less than ethical entities. And she isn’t wrong in her assessment. There are infamous examples of just this, with the pharmaceutical industry in the crosshairs of late.

Following up on a discussion of the frailty of peer review with COVID-19 information, differentiating “C19 peer review” from industry-academia collaboration seems useful

To start, industry-directed scientific peer review has been this way for decades, but not the artifice of C19 construct. The idea that science is pure research and living by one’s wits in academia has long past. Today, most university research is based on industry grants, where the professor does the research and the grad students teach at least the labs if not the entire course.

In some ways, the arrangement is beneficial (excluding undergrads who might not understand through the thick accent foreign student TA’s). Having an external body conduct application research is a solid way to “double check” internal studies, and these grant financed university studies can be submitted for professional publication.

And then the school gets crucial funding (which benefits undergrads).

But here are the problems with this arrangement:

1.) University research is directed towards a agreed goal – say, developing a oil drill bit that can make right angle lateral turns. This limits creativity and innovation once the hallmark of universities.

2.) Double bias. Publication bias, of course, and doing research to prove a hypothesis will sway methodology, and the incentive to “help” industry sponsor to receive additional grants introduces bias.

3.) Creativity is stifled. University research conducted to fulfill an application narrows what can and cant be discovered.

Now, there is always the interest in ferreting out the most nefarious of these arrangements – opioids is the current community scratching post – and then use these extreme ethical violations as the poster boy for industry-academia corruption, but those instances are so unique and so rare it’s inherently unfair to demonize these arrangements outright. Christian Nestell Bovee provides an excellent analogy, so let me see how close I can get to the quote:

The opinions of the misanthropical rest upon this very partial basis, that they adopt the bad faith of a few as evidence of the worthlessness of all.

That might not be exact but it’s close..

A large majority of industry-academia science collaboration is beneficial and “good.” The biggest issue that I see is that the university ideal of undirected thought and discovery is pushed aside because universities need money to teach students. Tuition doesn’t cover the operating costs.

My own analogy of this industry-academia arrangement is once a scientific road trip was pointing the car down an interesting road with no particular destination and no specific time you have to be there. Now, it’s more akin to a road trip with exact reservations and exact touristing activities when you get there.