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Professors minding their own business.

Professors minding their own business

University biotechnology researchers whose work is supported by private industry do not, as has been feared, abandon their faculty duties to chase after commercial success, according to a survey published in the June 13 SCIENCE. On the contrary, researchers with industry ties publish more journal articles, participate in more professional associations and activities and teach as many hours as those with no industry support.

Specifically, the survey reports that biotechnology researchers with industry ties publish an average of 14.6 journal articles in a three-year period, compared with about 11.3 for those without industry support; they are involved in an average of 14 professional and university activities, compared with 1.1 for their colleagues; and they spend about 22.2 hours per week teaching class or supervising students in the laboratory, compared with 20.3 hours per week for professors not supported by industry.

"This was a pleasant surprise in that some people thought we might find evidence of these faculty members doing less [academic work]," says Michael Gluck, a research assistant at the Center for Health Policy and Management at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government. Gluck was one of five Massachusetts researchers who in the winter of 1985 conducted the nationwide survey of 800 university biotechnology researchers and 438 faculty scientists in other fields.

On the other hand, the survey shows some evidence that confirms long-held fears about university-industry relations. For instance, biotechnology researchers with industry ties, according to their own admissions on the survey questionnaires, are four times more likely than their colleagues to keep their research secret, at least temporarily, in order to protect their sponsor's proprietary interests. Such behavior could compromise standards of open communication among faculty, the survey team reports.

The survey also indicates that researchers with industry support are four times more likely to let commercial potential color their choice of research projects. This could damage the universities' traditional commitment to basic research, the report states.

For the most part, however, the report casts a favorable light on university-industry relations.

Secrecy and commercialism may be problems, the researchers note, but they are problems of which the professors themselves are aware. Seventy percent of the researchers with industry ties report being concerned about the risk of shifting too much emphasis to applied research; 68 percent fear a trend toward spending too much time on commercial activities; and 44 percent worry that secrecy will "undermine intellectual exchange and cooperative activities" among faculty, according to the report. "These figures offer some evidence that, at least at current levels of involvement with industry, faculty remain sensitive and committed to traditional university values and practices," the report states.

The survey found that about 8 percent of biotechnology faculty hold equity in companies that produce products based on the faculty members' research, but only 0.5 percent, "a tiny minority," receive research grants from companies is which they hold equity, according to the report. The survey conductors call this finding "reassuring."

In addition, the survey shows that biotechnology researchers with industry ties are more than twice as likely as their colleagues to come up with practical, marketable applications for their research--a potential financial benefit for universities, according to the report.

Although the survey report is, for the most part, reassuring, Gluck says, "we still think [industry support for university research] is a serious enough issue that it warrants attention and monitoring." In order to lessen the risks of secrecy and commercialism, the survey team suggests that university administrators make it clear that they are opposed to protecting trade secrets.
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Title Annotation:survey of university biotechnology researchers with industry ties
Author:Murray, Mary
Publication:Science News
Date:Jun 14, 1986
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