Since coming to power in 2009, President Barack Obama has frequently urged the American research community to kick it up a notch, get innovating and help pull the US economy out of its postrecession funk. In 2011, British Prime Minister David Cameron told the UK parliament that “innovation is the beating heart” of the British economy and that the “life sciences is a jewel” in the economic crown. Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper has made similar declarations. In the federal government’s 2007 science and technology strategy document, he promised that Canada “will continue to make the investments in science and technology necessary to sustain a modern competitive economy.”
These pronouncements highlight the political backdrop to what has become a practical reality for the university-based scientific community: there is an ever-intensifying pressure to commercialize research. The emphasis on demonstrating the economic benefits of research has changed the role of the scientist. If you are a biomedical researcher, the successful commercialization of your work is not, as it was once perceived, a fortunate and coincidental by-product of blue-sky science. It is now an expectation.
But is the pressure to show the commercial benefits of research always a good thing?
To be fair, university researchers have long been exposed to a wide range of influences. They are called upon to invent weapons in times of conflict. They have been asked to put men on the moon and recruited to wage a war on cancer.
Research happens in a social context. It is rarely “pure” in the sense that there are no outside forces nudging, prodding and shaping the direction of the inquiry. And, despite these outside urgings (or, perhaps, because of them), meaningful science gets done. Knowledge moves forward and innovations emerge, producing useful products from radar to transistors and better drugs.
But it is important to recognize how pervasive the commercialization and research-as-a-driver-of-the-economy rationale has become. It is near-impossible to work outside its grasp and potentially perverting powers. While the encouragement to commercialize may not be new, numerous studies have found that pressure to produce profitable outcomes has intensified over the past decade. The result is a tangible shift in the expectations placed on university researchers and introduces a new set of temptations that puts the reputation of science at risk.
In Canada, the pressure permeates every nook and cranny of the research-funding environment, particularly in the context of biomedical research. The philosophy has been embraced by our country’s governing party, inspired by the politically palatable position that few voters will recoil from politicians who champion science and technology as engines of growth.
But this political pressure manifests itself in the mandates of most public funding agencies. The Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), the country’s principal biomedical funding agency, was created, to quote the CIHR’s enabling legislation, with the hope of “promot[ing] growth and job creation” and to facilitate “the commercialization of health research” and “economic development.” Genome
Canada, a federally supported, nonprofit, research-funding agency, states that its explicit goals are, among other things, to support “genomic sciences that create economic wealth and social benefit” and to “translate discoveries into commercial opportunities.”
And the Networks of Centres of Excellence, another federal program, seeks to foster “economic competitiveness” by turning “Canadian research and entrepreneurial talent into economic and social benefits for all Canadians.”
A similar trend exists at the level of provincial funding. The most recent strategic document of British Columbia’s Michael Smith Foundation for Health Research states that one of the specific goals of the agency is to “optimize the economic contribution of health research.” The legislation that created Alberta Innovates, the entity that replaced the Alberta Heritage Foundation for Medical Research, declares that its purpose is, inter alia, the “development and growth of new and existing industries.”
A Canadian researcher would be hard pressed to find support from a public funding entity that does not have, as part of its core mandate, a commercialization theme.
I am not naïve. I realize that private-sector money is needed to both fund and translate research into applications. Without industry involvement, many of the potentially beneficial basic science discoveries would never make it to the clinic. But though the need for and value of industry involvement is real, there are social costs associated with the push to commercialize university research. These trade-offs are rarely explicitly mentioned in the government reports or the funding agency mandates that have embraced the commercialization ethos. There is no balancing of priorities or discussion of the risks and benefits.
What are the risks of an unrelenting focus on commercialization?
Several studies have shown that public trust declines significantly when researchers are revealed to be involved with industry, an inevitable by-product of commercialization pressure. A recent survey of Albertans undertaken by our team at the University of Alberta on the issue of tissue banking found that while 45.1 percent of the public trusted publicly funded researchers a “great deal,” only 19.5 percent felt the same way about university researchers funded by industry. In addition, those that did not trust them “at all” rose from 6.2 percent to 26.9 percent.
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Public opinion research from Australia, led by Christine Critchley, uncovered a similar trend. The researchers concluded in a 2011 article that public support “drops significantly when scientific research is funded by private rather than public interests, and even more so when it is conducted in a private company rather than a public university.”
Public trust is essential to the success of biomedical research. It is a core value in the recruitment of research participants, for the goodwill necessary to sustain funding, and for the successful transfer of new technologies and therapies from the lab to the public realm. And public perception research tells us that trust is particularly important in the context of socially controversial research, such as stem cell research, or research into issues such as genetics that involve access to sensitive personal information.
That trust may be undermined by asking researchers to emphasize the economic benefits of their research, to work more closely with industry and to have marketable products as their explicit goal.
An emerging body of research indicates that the value of university research is becoming increasingly susceptible to being overhyped, with the potential benefits of a discovery overplayed and its limitations minimized. A study published in the journal PLOS Medicine last September found that half of press releases issued about randomized controlled clinical trials contained some degree of “spin,” over-emphasizing the potential benefits. A 2012 study from the Université de Montréal found that many genomic studies (specifically in the field of nutrignomics) were hyped, containing claims and suggested clinical applications “whose achievability has not yet been demonstrated due to methodological limitations.”
An analysis of public representations of stem cell research similarly found a large level of disconnect between the promises made by the community and the reality of the field. The study, which was published in November 2012 and led by University of Alberta’s Tania Bubela, concludes with the warning that overpromoting the benefits of stem cell treatments could cause “patients and political supporters [to] become disappointed and disillusioned.” The proponents of stem cell research, the study concluded, should “make a concerted effort to temper claims.”
While there are many forces pushing this research hype (including an understandable enthusiasm for an exciting area of science), it is reasonable to assume that researchers and institutions that are under pressure to produce tangible results that could result in profitable products and therapies can succumb to the temptation to oversell the results of their work.
Furthermore, commercialization pressures can lead to the premature rush to market of technologies and products, and even skew the direction that researchers choose to take. The risk of this obsession is that public trust in the value of university-based research will erode.
Our politicians are right, in one sense. Economic growth has become more knowledge-based. Inevitably, the pressure to increase ties between university research and the private sector will grow. Reproducing the Stanford model, with its highly profitable off-shoots in Silicon Valley, has become an aspirational (though rarely attained) example for governments, business and universities around the world.
But we need to protect an avenue of independent knowledge creation. In a world that looks to science for solutions to its most vexing problems, we need trustworthy sources of research, removed as much as possible from the pressures of the market.
This is not a plea against commercializing all science, or a naïve call to ignore the imperatives of return on investment, job creation and the need to get our best and most useful science out of the lab and into society where it can serve people. Obama, Cameron and Harper are right. Research and innovation can and will, increasingly, drive our economy. We hope they put public money where their mouths are.
But there is a risk that the commercialization mantra will cause us to abandon the open thinking and experimentation without end that can lead to the unexpected. History has shown this is where many of our most unexpected — but ultimately useful — discoveries come from — the eureka moments that are the spark of human progress.