With federal funding for science on the decline, what’s the role of a profit motive in research?

Money doesn’t grow in flasks – scientists have to find funds outside the lab. chuttersnap/Unsplash, CC BY

With federal funding for science on the decline, what’s the role of a profit motive in research?

What is the place of a profit motive in the production of knowledge at public universities?

The Trump administration’s initial budget request presented in 2017 offered one answer to that question. According to the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the budget proposal included a 17 percent reduction in funding for basic research. Proposed cuts to particular agencies and programs within them, such as research on basic energy sciences at the Department of Energy, were particularly acute. And while Congress intervened to avoid these cuts, the current funding package is nevertheless part of a long-term trend of reduced federal commitment to science.

Proposed and actual funding conveys a recurring message to American academic scientists: do more to attract money from other sources. In most instances, this means industry funding.

On the face of it, partnerships between academia and industry in the production of knowledge are both sensible and critical. Given sluggish economic growth and the prevalence of societal problems that require technological solutions, one might argue that universities should be extensively engaged in contributing to innovation and less concerned with research lacking an apparent connection to real-world impact. Why spend time and money on studying the mating habits of Japanese quail when there are problems like Alzheimer’s disease and excessive reliance on non-renewable fossil fuels that urgently need solutions right now?

Yet many critics argue that a profit motive in science creates a scenario in which scientists place their values and potential personal gain ahead of the public good, resulting in bias and conflicts of interest. Whether you are concerned about the advancement of science, economic innovation, or both, it’s worth considering the value and appropriateness of partnerships between academic scientists and the corporate sector.

What do researchers themselves think? I’ve spent more than a decade sitting down with hundreds of scientists around the world for in-depth conversations about their work. In my recent book, “A Fractured Profession: Commercialism and Conflict in Academic Science,” I examine how scientists experience the rise of commercialism in academic science. These researchers shared views with me that don’t necessarily fall neatly in line with either those who celebrate a profit motive in science nor those who lament it.

Maybe it’s the dream of walking across this stage to receive a Nobel Prize. Nobel Media AB 2017/Alexander Mahmoud, Author provided (No reuse)

What actually motivates scientists?

Even if university administrators and federal officials reward profitable science, the scientists I spoke with say that profits are rarely their motivation. Commercialist scientists in academia certainly do not dismiss the importance of revenues or resources for research, but societal impact and the pursuit of status in science were more highly prized by the scientists in my study. Being able to claim that you reduced the cost of making a vaccine to less than the cost of the bottle in which it is stored, for example, is a new way to stand out at a university where most scientists are publishing in the top journals in their field. In this respect, self-interest – generating money and prestige – can coincide with the public good.

Perhaps more importantly to those who think that universities should operate even more like businesses than they already do, scholars are finding that average rates of return from commercialization — even at universities with the highest licensing income — are relatively low. In the same way that relatively few universities benefit considerably from big-time college sports, relatively few universities — typically those that are rich already — actually produce blockbusters that lead to financial windfalls.

Unlike some commentators and members of the public, most of the scientists I spoke with are relatively unconcerned with conflicts of interest and bias in commercially oriented research. In their view, peer review mitigates such questions. Even if a scientist stands to gain financially from the outcomes of her research, if an invention is not scientifically sound, researchers contend it would have little chance of success in the market.

The traditional scientists in academia I spoke with reported two chief values: support for curiosity-driven research and a long-term vision of the technological fruits of scientific research. Traditionalists are still the majority, but they encounter scarce resources for basic research and increasing pressure to connect their work to concrete societal impacts. In the words of one scientist, much of what scientists understand about cancer stems from work based on Nobel Prize-winning biologist Lee Hartwell’s curiosity-driven research on how yeast cells divide. “If he had to apply his research, he probably would have had to work for Budweiser,” he said.

Investing in a mix of sorts of science

What should be the role of the state and the market in the production of knowledge in the American research university? Both are critical.

History shows there’s an intrinsic value to letting people explore, because such exploration is critical to later marketplace innovations and economic prosperity. Today’s multi-billion-dollar global positioning system industries rely on Einstein’s general theory of relativity and ideas from 19th-century geometry, the latter of which were dismissed by contemporaries as useless. Other technologies, such as Teflon, saccharine and the pacemaker, were accidental creations. While corporations once valued having internal basic science laboratories where exploratory or “blue-sky” research took place, now the U.S government is the chief, and under-resourced, patron for this important work.

Few universities generate vast commercial returns from commercially oriented research. As a society, we must therefore be cautious in how eagerly we unleash the forces of the market in funding science in academia. Similar experiments in substituting the market for the state in primary schooling, prisons and the military have not clearly paid off.

Much as a diversified investment portfolio includes various assets that balance returns and risk, society would benefit most from a healthy mix of investment in curiosity-driven, use-inspired and highly market-oriented research in academia.

Until scientists can better articulate why science is as worthy of investment as any other form of infrastructure, they will likely continue to encounter the message delivered today: look to the market.