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Academia

Celebrate the partnership between universities and industry, donít discourage it.

It is difficult to pinpoint when industry and academia consummated their long and torrid affair. Up until World War II, the universityís relationship with industry had primarily been as a supplier of freshly trained graduates for the job market. The situation heated up in 1946, when the National Institutes of Health formed a grants office to distribute funding for research. Industry took notice for a simple reason—leverage. With billions of dollars pouring in, the private sector could afford to commercialize the most promising technologies and hire the very students who had worked on them. The Bayh-Dole Act of 1980, passed to encourage technology transfer, tied the knot (see “No Faustian Bargain,” page 86 of Acumen, Issue 4). At last, universities could make royalties from their government-backed inventions by licensing them to the private sector.

But in the ensuing years, worries have mounted. Clinician-scientists are closely linked to pharmaceutical companies, basic scientists work on contract to biotech firms, and the right invention can make a professor rich. Peer-reviewed scientific journals, in which results are evaluated purely on their merits, are now under fire for accepting papers in which the authorís research has been supported by industry dollars. The fear is that data will be biased in the companyís favor, leading to more funding for the researcher and the company—at a cost to science and the public.

Worried citizens new to the debate should take a breath. It is because of the relations between universities and industry that U.S. life sciences technology has no peer. Without strong links between the two, we risk losing the economic and human benefits that have resulted.

At the same time, to say that academic-industry collaborations are without problems is misleading. Human clinical trials conducted by physician-scientists who have conflicts of interest should be monitored carefully and published only with full disclosure. The peer-reviewed science journals have lagged their clinical counterparts in disclosing authorsí potential conflicts of interest, but Natureís recent policy requiring financial disclosure is an important step toward transparency, giving readers and reviewers the opportunity to make informed judgments.

Academia and industry are tightly linked; they have been for decades, and this relationship has been good for Americans. We should celebrate the partnership, while ensuring that inquiry-based research, so crucial to the process of discovery and commercialization, remains free to ask the next burning question.

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Graham Allison, Ph.D.

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