The Hidden Costs of Managing University Research as a Business

With the rallying cry of “accountability” and “self-sustaining,” many university administrators are seeking to convert hot research departments into cash cows. But do such plans really serve the interests of academia and the public? Or are they merely liquidating the value-creating capacities of robust research communities? The headline on the front page of today’s Wall Street Journal (May 4) sums it up: “Once Collegial, Research Schools Now Mean Business.”

The WSJ article chronicles the decline of a prominent anti-cancer researcher at Arizona State University, Dr. George Pettit. Despite a 30-year history with ASU and 62 U.S. patents in his name, Pettit lost his major cancer research center and was shunted into the shadows because he failed to meet the fund-raising, business-minded expectations of the new president, Dr. Michael Crow. The new administration has aggressively stepped up its demands for patentable research, contracts with industry and federal grants.

The upshot is that the academic commons is becoming more like a marketplace. The transformation is skewing research priorities to applied, money-making projects, introducing new ethical problems and subtly eroding the open sharing of knowledge that lies at the heart of scientific inquiry. As reporter Bernard Wysocki Jr. writes:

Once, academic researchers had broad latitude to pursue the subjects that interested them, with light oversight and scant pressure to produce things with direct application in the marketplace. Now, universities are increasingly demanding accountability, and refusing to coddle scholars who don’t pull their weight in the competition to secure grant money.

Dr. Pettit’s story is a complicated one, too long to recount here, but the story reveals in microcosm how the creative capacities of the academic commons are being neutered by market enclosure. Too bad there is so little organized pushback on this trend by scientists themselves. One bright spot, to be discussed in future posts, is the exemplary work being done by the Science Commons, an offshoot of the Creative Commons.