The Atlantic

Public Universities Get an Education in Private Industry

Can academic researchers remain impartial if they are beholden to corporate money?
Source: Triff / Shutterstock / Katie Martin / The Atlantic

At the University of California, Davis, researchers are regularly invited to attend on-campus meet-and-greets with potential corporate funders to discuss possible sponsorship opportunities. Handshakes and business cards are routinely exchanged—so are nondisclosure agreements.

Jonathan Eisen, an evolutionary biologist at U.C. Davis, says such meetings and the attendant nondisclosure agreements are commonplace and that it’s university administrators—rather than the corporations themselves—who encourage their professors and researchers to attend. Eisen describes one meeting in which a company started out by passing around a document. “It was a 13-page agreement, and I refused to sign it,” Eisen says. “I said: ‘Look, there are 20 things in here I don’t understand and 15 things I completely disagree with. There’s no way I’m signing it.’”

But, unlike Eisen, many in the scientific community and academia do sign the NDAs—creating blind spots that make it impossible for the rest of the world to discern whether a corporation has had any undue influence on research. I spent a year poring over documents and talking to universities, companies, lawyers, and researchers to figure out what kind of role corporate funding plays in public-university studies across the United States. Nearly all of the people I spoke with talked about the increasing ease with which corporate representatives have access to researchers, although some were more comfortable with the arrangement than others.

Proponents of such arrangements—including all of the university officials I spoke with—say that corporate engagement in research is critical if universities are to continue their cutting-edge work. For many opponents, however, the mere mention that a corporation has sponsored research is enough to dismiss it as compromised. That’s because corporate backers can be given a great deal of power and latitude, selecting the specific kinds of studies, materials, and techniques to be used in exchange for their funding. Unsurprisingly, companies excel at creating the conditions most likely to give them the results they want. “It’s a problem, obviously,” says Ivan Oransky, a distinguished writer in residence at New York University’s Carter Journalism Institute, where he teaches medical journalism. “But if you tried to rid literature of every badly designed study, you’d be left with about four papers a year.”

But sometimes, a study is so controversial that even corporate backers cry foul. That’s what happened last December when a paper commissioned by the International Life Sciences Institute—composed of companies like Red Bull and Hershey among others—downplayed the importance of limiting one’s sugar intake. The university professors who had authored the paper quickly came under fire for conflicts of interest, and at least one has vowed to disclose all her funding from now on. Even Mars, one of the paper’s funders, slammed the study as based on weak evidence that only served to confuse consumers. According to the Associated Press, Mars said the paper “undermines the work of public-health officials and makes all industry-funded research look bad.”

Further complicating the issue is that there are no widely accepted or adopted industry guidelines for how these relationships should be conducted. Although the American Association of University Professors has issued recommendations for engagement, according to Laura Markwardt, a spokesperson for the association, “We don’t necessarily track which colleges and universities adopt

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