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Impact agendas still threaten research autonomy

The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted how private funders can work with academic research institutions to bring products like vaccines and testing devices to market quickly.

This was widely celebrated and called for research to become even more socially and economically effective in the future. In addition, the UK’s second Research Excellence Framework (REF), which includes impact as one of its criteria, will no doubt show just how effective research has already become when it presents its results next month.

But despite all the euphoria, we would do well to remember an old warning about the influence of private sector funding on academic research

Proponents of the impact agenda — which has more or less been adopted by funders around the world over the past decade — argue that it leads to targeted research that benefits both the economy and the well-being of society. It can also use private sources of funding for collaborative projects, as researchers are pushed to work closely with private sector and philanthropic organizations.

The requirement that research reflect monetary and societal benefits is perfectly reasonable. But it should not become a shibboleth that distracts from the main purpose of university research. For example, there are entire branches of science such as astronomy or paleontology that offer profound knowledge, but for which one cannot fathom any possible monetary benefits. We must be extremely careful that the Impact Agenda does not undermine their funding (their inclusion in broader ‘assessment units’ in the REF helps mitigate this risk, but the problem remains).

Moreover, what happens when research stakeholders are primarily driven by a desire not so much for social welfare as for profit or the advancement of a particular agenda?

This is a particular danger in strategic areas such as medicine, defense and information technology. It is well known, for example, that the defense industries that countries have built for their legitimate national defense and security paradoxically need conflict to sustain themselves. This is an example where the monetary interest of companies does not necessarily correlate with the societal interest; For a major investment in new military technology to pay off, defense contractors must do whatever it takes to stimulate demand—which they need conflict to do. Fortunately, universities are rarely used for defense research due to their excessive secrecy, but it does happen (in these cases, REF case study viewing is limited to jury members).

On the other hand, medical research is an important source of private funding for universities. And medical companies are also notorious for using their influence over healthcare systems and governments to expand markets for their products. The veneer of academic seriousness only supports these efforts – which in turn does not always have to be in the public interest. Although the vaccine development effort has been claimed to be a triumph (and certainly a lucrative one for many of the companies involved), there are many examples where products that are ineffective or downright harmful have been adopted by health systems.

The risks of research corruption are particularly high in the case of prestigious universities, in which the major business organizations invest the most. These organizations don’t spend big bucks on research areas that don’t pay off. Companies select areas that promise a financial return and accordingly exert their influence on the experts and scientists in the renowned academic institutions.

Furthermore, the typical dominance of research by a relatively small number of companies makes bias all the more likely. For this reason, the formation of networks of academic research institutions, all funded by the same private organisations, should be strongly discouraged, particularly in the strategic research areas identified by the government. And any private funding and involvement in research must be rigorously scrutinized to ensure academic institutions do not become dependent on private donors.

If decisions about public research funding have to be based on economic and social effects, then we should at least ensure that cooperation with small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and new start-ups is given more weight than with mega-corporations and “philanthropic societies” that run by business tycoons. Strict objective criteria must be incorporated to assess potential conflicts of interest and negative societal impacts when a large corporation is a significant financier.

Undermining academic research autonomy will ultimately undermine the credibility of academic research and researchers. Furthermore, when academic research becomes a business and academic researchers become businessmen, it is not just the university and its core departments that are affected; it can result in great harm to society as a whole.

As good as next month’s impact case studies may look, the main driver of academic research must remain the creation of ethical knowledge and its wider dissemination for the benefit of society – not greed for profit and furthering the agendas of influential private funders.

Tahir H Shah is Advisor and Professor of Advanced Materials and Technical Textiles at the National Textile University in Faisalabad, Pakistan, and Fellow of the UK’s Royal Society of Chemistry and Textile Institute.

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