Monitoring Industry Ties

AAUP issues report calling for tougher guidelines on the relationships between academics and businesses.

June 13, 2012

Many academic and professional groups have guidelines to deal with financial conflicts of interest and to protect research integrity. But they don’t do enough, especially in the area of academic freedom, says a report being released today by the American Association of University Professors. The report recommends numerous guidelines to encourage more public reporting of professors' industry ties and bans on certain kinds of relationships.

The report “AAUP Recommended Principles & Practices to Guide Academy-Industry Relationships,” lists 56 guiding principles related to academy-industry collaboration in the areas of academic freedom and governance, student education and training, management of intellectual property, management of financial conflicts of interest including clinical care and human subject research, and alliances with corporations.

Cary Nelson, the outgoing president of the AAUP and co-author of the report, said that in the last decade relationships between the academy and industry have become much more complex. “There are people getting stock options, there are complex financial payoffs…. I think it is much more compromising than saying ‘Here’s a check,’ ” he said. “There are all sorts of long-term financial entanglements that can compromise faculty. It is more complex, more numerous and more remunerative.”

From calling on universities to have comprehensive conflict of interest policies to requiring physicians and other health care professionals  to disclose  financial conflicts of interests to patients and the public, the 268-page report takes aim at a wide swath of areas where the interests of the academy and industry might intersect. The report asks that if there is an alliance between an academic entity and a business, clear boundaries be established to separate “corporate funders from the university’s academic work.” And it suggests that faculty members should have the right to retain the title to their inventions.

Further, it recommends that faculty members and administrators be “prohibited from participating in industry-led ‘speaker bureaus’ financed by the pharmaceutical or other industry groups.”

Nelson felt that the situation had reached a crisis point. “Sometimes people say that we don’t do enough in the area of faculty responsibility. I don’t think they can say this about the report,” Nelson said.

He pointed to a book called The Golden Holocaust: Origins of the Cigarette Catastrophe and the Case for Abolition by Robert N. Proctor, a professor of history of science at Stanford University, published this year. The book looks at the way tobacco manufacturers operate and how they sometimes enlist academics to forward their agenda. Nelson said that some faculty members make much more money from their tie-ups with industry than their university salaries. “Maybe their university salaries help pay the tax bill. So, it is really hard to see these people as disinterested scholars,” he said.

The other issue, according to Nelson, is that the disciplinary societies are not “too courageous.” He said that even though the American Economic Association passed conflict of interest guidelines earlier this year after widespread criticism of ties between economists and the financial services industry, it might not be enough.

And that’s one reason, Nelson said, the AAUP guidelines are necessary.

“A lot of universities do not have the kind of rules that we recommend. What I hope happens is that faculty senates try to establish better rules and guidelines, and better requirements for work they do with the industry,” Nelson said. “I hope faculty will read them, debate them and begin to get them adopted.”

The best industries would approve of a more ethical campus, and if faculty research were independent, it would be much more valuable to industry, he said. “We cannot say rules or a set of principles can make people ethical, but it can help people think about the nature of their behavior, ethics and standards,” Nelson said.

Andrew Cohn, vice president for advocacy for the Association of University Technology Managers and director of government and association relations at the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, who looked at a copy of the report, said AUTM had some concerns about Principle 11, which relates to faculty inventor rights and intellectual property rights. "Faculty members' fundamental rights to direct and control their own research do not terminate when they make a new invention or other research discovery; these rights properly extend to decisions involving invention management, intellectual property (IP), licensing, commercialization, dissemination, and public use," the principle states.

Cohn said that "these recommendations oversimplify what is an incredibly complex and nuanced matter.... There’s the type of invention to consider, the mission of the university.”

Cohn said he was pleased that the AAUP would open up the report to comments. “We certainly want to provide comments on the issues we have concerns about,” he said.

A spokeswoman for the association said in an e-mailed message that the organization commends the AAUP for trying to preserve the dissemination and value of industry sponsored research. But the statement said that the organization disagreed “with AAUP’s position that ‘faculty should be free to retain title to their own inventions and control their disposition.' ”

“This position assumes that faculty alone are the most qualified to make decisions about how and to whom technologies are licensed. It also ignores the fact that most university inventions are produced by more than one faculty member and, increasingly, by faculty from collaborating universities,” the statement said.


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