Saving Academia from Market Enclosure

One of our most valuable commons are universities: a special non-market system for generating reliable and valuable knowledge. This is precisely why so many businesses are trying to privatize the academic commons. They see it as a rich lode of commercially significant research, and as a great marketing opportunity to reach a youthful demographic cohort. (Ever notice how you see more Nike swooshes and credit card logos in the student union than political signage?)

Companies also regard universities as an unbeatable PR tool to validate the corporate research agenda. They love it when they can announce, “Harvard researchers have found that genetically modified crops are safe…” or “the new SuperDrug is safe” while reserving the right to suppress embarrassing and even dangerous research findings.

These were among the topics discussed at an Ottawa conference that I attended over the weekend. Controlling Intellectual Property: The Academic Community and the Future of Knowledge, was hosted by the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT). It featured lots of interesting speakers, most of them pointing out the alarming growth of market sensibilities on campus. I gave the closing keynote on “The Perils of Property Speak in Academia,” which I will post as an essay on next week.

I was struck by the active enthusiasm of university administrators to convert academia into a more market-friendly environment. In Canada, there have been proposals to have tenure committees consider inventions and patents as evidence of scholarly achievement. Administrators are trying to obtain copyrights in professors’ published work because individually held copyrights can impede the efficient commercialization of knowledge — e.g., in developing online distance-education courses. In 2002, a Canadian panel recommended that universities triple their revenues from patents by 2010. Even though it’s an utterly unrealistic goal, according one speaker, such talk only intensifies pressures to produce commercially valuable research — often at the expense of basic, long-term research or public-spirited research.

At the furthest extreme, an Australian speaker, Paul Kniest, said the University of New England had actually proposed that it own all “knowledge assets” (KA) created by professors and students! So just as all of culture has been reduced to “content” — mere fungible commodities — so the fruits of academia could henceforth be considered “KA” ready to be entered into the university spreadsheet. Appalling.

All of these trends are being bolstered by pernicious trends in copyright and patent policy. The scope of patents is expanding wildly. Governments are acting like a friendly drunk at the bar: “Hey, ya wanna monopoly right on your idea? Sure, why not? My treat!” It’s now possible to get patents on mathematical algorithms in software; on business methods like “one-click shopping,” and on lifeforms such as the Harvard “onco-mouse” (a transgenic mouse injected with a cancer gene). The human genome would have gotten locked up as private property if public-sector researchers had not raced ahead and published the data first, putting it into the public domain.

As more parties win patents for “upstream” basic research, the “anti-commons” effect kicks in. This is what happens when property rights for a given field of research are so numerous and fragmented that it becomes too difficult and costly to clear the rights for one’s research. This is one reason that the search for a malaria vaccine has been so elusive — there are 34 “patent families” for a single malarial antigen.

What kinds of future knowledge are we sabotaging right now? As I told the conference, if contemporary copyright and patent rules had been in effect in the 1950s and 1960s, it?s likely that neither the biotech revolution nor the computer revolution would have occurred. Too much fundamental knowledge would have been proprietary.

There are two related forces propelling the corporate enclosure of academia. First, government has chronically under-funded higher education and research. This has sent administrators scurrying to find new sources of funding. They immediately run into the open arms of large, research-intensive companies, which are eager to externalize their R&D costs and leverage the resources of universities. Enter the university/corporate “partnership.” In no time at all, the entire value-proposition of the profit-driven corporation and market economics begins to trample on the venerable norms and practices of academic science. New market-oriented rules are imposed: Publication has to be delayed lest it make the research unpatentable. Commercially hot research takes priority over long-term inquiry. New ethical conflicts-of-interest arise as researchers serve two masters — the corporate sponsor and their academic peers.

One way that academia can begin to fight back, I believe, is by developing a stronger, more coherent analysis for why its open sharing and collaboration represent a “value proposition.” The academic commons is at least as generative as the market, but you rarely hear that stated or explained. Until it is, administrators and even many professors are likely to see more value in cold, hard cash than in the norms and ethics of the academic commons.